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<em>The 15:17 to Paris</em> Is a Bizarre Recreation of <br>Real-Life Bravery

Posted: 09 Feb 2018 04:00 AM PST

I'm here to report what seems like a serious inaccuracy in the advertising of The 15:17 to Paris. According to the film's poster, it was directed by Clint Eastwood, but I'm pretty sure the drama I watched was made by Tommy Wiseau—the eccentric artist behind the "so bad it's good," cult-classic movie The Room. How else to explain the halting dialogue, the way entire scenes have absolutely no bearing on the larger plot, and the ensemble of actors who have never been in a motion picture before? Watching The 15:17 to Paris summoned the kind of strange, unsettled feeling that only a true master like Wiseau can usually conjure.

But The 15:17 to Paris is indeed Eastwood's 36th film, the latest and oddest entry in a nearly 50-year directing career that has produced some incredible artistic twists and turns. In the last decade or so, he's become fascinated with rendering true-life heroism with the help of Hollywood's biggest stars—casting Tom Hanks as a legendary pilot in Sully, Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in Invictus, and Bradley Cooper as the famed marksman Chris Kyle in American Sniper.

With The 15:17 to Paris, Eastwood is trying something different. This is a film about a real act of bravery, in which three Americans (two of them members of the military) tackled and subdued a gunman on a train going from Amsterdam to Paris in August 2015. And rather than cast some strapping young actors from the latest Marvel movie, Eastwood turned to the men themselves—Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos—to play, well, themselves. Hollywood is always on the lookout for undiscovered talent, but this is daring stuff, a choice more typical of Jean Rouch than the man who directed Million Dollar Baby. And I wish it had worked.

The end result is too peculiar to just be dismissed as "bad," but I can't imagine that Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos's acting careers have much of a future. The film painstakingly recreates their courageous moment on that train, yes, but that sequence amounts to about 15 minutes of time in a movie that runs a roomy-feeling 95. So there are also a lot of less impressive recreations: the three friends meeting in middle school, Stone taking tests to be in the military, and a solid chunk of scenes of them vacationing around Europe, taking selfies, and ordering beer at various restaurants.

The film has all the subtlety of a military-recruitment video. As kids, the trio love to play with toy guns and run around in the woods but struggle to conform to the rules of the strict Christian school they attend. As an adult, Stone lives a listless life until he decides to get in shape and apply to join the Air Force, prompting a long workout montage and a series of scenes detailing the tests one must pass to become a soldier. Skarlatos is also in the military, but Eastwood doesn't delve as much into his upbringing, having clearly decided that Stone is the most intriguing member of the trio.

"You ever just feel like life is just pushing us towards something?" Stone asks Sadler as they look out on the Venice skyline. "Like, some greater purpose?" Some of the details dropped into The 15:17 to Paris are meant to illuminate Stone's crucial role in subduing the train shooter; there's a reason viewers get that scene of him learning jiu-jitsu, say, or being taught how to apply pressure to a neck wound. Through it all, there are also frequent suggestions of a higher power guiding Stone toward something special—his mother (played by Judy Greer) is religious, and Skarlatos's mom (played by Jenna Fischer) informs him that God has told her something very exciting will happen in his future.

But before all that action, there's scene after stilted scene of the three buds hanging out and swapping canned bits of dialogue. As a director, Eastwood is renowned for shooting quickly and only doing one or two takes, an approach that feels borderline ruinous when the three stars of the film have never acted before. Other recent Eastwood efforts, like the excellent Sully, were helped by the magnetic movie stars at their center; The 15:17 to Paris unfortunately reminded me more of a school play or a workplace-safety video.

Then there's the attack itself, where the camera is focused entirely on the actions of Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler, who acted boldly and prevented tragedy. But the gunman, Ayoub El-Khazzani (Ray Corasani) is given nary a line; he is a faceless, meaningless villain, a problem to be solved and triumphed over. In the past, Eastwood has sought to understand the motivations on every side of a conflict (think of his wonderful film Letters From Iwo Jima, which focused on the Japanese side of the World War II battle), but he makes no such attempt here.  Perhaps he deemed El-Khazzani's alleged actions too monstrous to be worthy of examination.

The end result is a simple tale of genuine heroism, told poorly. Eastwood made waves a few years ago when he addressed an empty chair at the Republican National Convention; this is the first of his own movies that feels like it was directed by ... an empty chair. Perhaps his curious gambit of casting real-life figures would never have gelled, but Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler are not unsympathetic, just untrained in front of the camera. With more time and effort, The 15:17 to Paris might have worked; as it is, it's little more than a failed experiment.

The U.S. Government Shut Down Overnight—and Will Soon Reopen

Posted: 09 Feb 2018 04:08 AM PST

This story was updated on Thursday, February 8.

There was no reason for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to feel nervous on Thursday morning. The day before, he and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had announced an agreement on a massive two-year budget deal to attach to a short-term funding bill. A few Senate Republicans were annoyed, to be sure—the deal busts through budget caps, allocating nearly $300 billion in defense and nondefense spending, along with $89 billion in disaster relief and a one-year suspension of the debt limit. But Schumer had corralled the support of more than enough Democrats. They'd easily reach 60 votes. And as South Dakota Senator John Thune told House members on the floor last evening, they'd likely have a vote ready by lunchtime.

Fast forward to early Thursday evening. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul took the floor, arguing that the United States must withdraw troops from Afghanistan. He then switched to a collection of colorful signs, one lambasting California's allotment of funds for school lunches ("School Lunch Programs: Feeding Lawns, Not Kids"), and another calling the D.C. streetcar system, "A Streetcar Named Waste." And just after 11 p.m., the Senate adjourned until 12:01 a.m. without voting on a spending bill, shutting down the government.

At 1:53 a.m., the Senate at last voted and passed the bill, 71 votes to 28. And after a tense standoff with House Democrats, at 5:30 a.m., Republican leadership claimed victory in the lower chamber, passing the deal and reopening the government, 240 votes to 186. 73 Democrats broke from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to vote in favor.

In the end, both parties were forced to wrestle with their own respective fallouts: Democrats, on the directionless nature of their leadership, as yet another shutdown fight yielded no tangible victories. And Republicans, on whether their longtime message of fiscal prudence had become a permanent relic of the past.

The day's tumult began when Paul, a libertarian who's often been a thorn in the Republican leadership's side, torpedoed the unanimous-consent vote needed to invoke cloture and speed up a final vote in the Senate. He was adamant that he would not endorse leadership's plans to avert a shutdown by midnight unless the floor was open for him to introduce his amendment for a vote, which would set strict budget caps and slash the bill's debt-ceiling measure. McConnell wouldn't budge, arguing that opening the floor to Paul's amendment would open the floodgates for others.

So at 6 p.m., McConnell called for a vote, and Paul objected—shutdown be damned.

For over an hour, Paul railed against Republicans for their hypocrisy on spending and deficits. The tea-party wave of support that swept large Republican majorities into office in 2010, he argued, premised on a conservative message of spending reforms and deficit slashing—a response, in many ways, to the big-spending years of the Bush era—had crashed. His colleagues grimaced and griped about Paul's pageantry; Paul was, indeed, all but ensuring a government shutdown for little reason other than his desire to make a few points. Yet it's likely that, were it a Democrat and not Donald Trump in the White House, Republicans would be cheering his words. As Alabama Representative Mo Brooks put it to reporters yesterday, "Quite frankly, I'm astonished that the Republican Party seems to be the party of big government in this day and age."

Paul could only delay the proceedings until noon on Friday at the latest, although Senate leaders predicted—more accurately, hoped—it wouldn't come to that. The Senate was able to vote near 2 a.m. on Friday morning, with the House following suit just a few hours later.

Yet the bill didn't sail through the House as Republican leadership predicted. Sure, Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry and his team knew they'd have to rely on Democrats in the end, but they predicted around 70 would do the trick—not necessarily an impossible lift. As the seconds ticked by during the 15-minute vote, however, it was a clear a stand-off of sorts was taking shape: Democrats stood tall, their eyes locked on the voting board, refusing to budge with a vote either way until the clock ticked down to 0:00. The GOP whip team looked jittery. And then, with Pelosi looking sullen, the floodgates opened, and a total of 73 Democrats voted "yea" nearly in unison—despite the fact that, in the end, they'd won no concessions from Republicans, not even a promise from Ryan to hold an open vote on immigration legislation. As with the last shutdown, observers struggled to rationalize just what Democrats had gained.

It was fitting, in a way, that the U.S. government reopened with the same level of chaos that sparked its shutdown—all while most Americans were sleeping. Ultimately, the bill will be on the president's desk by breakfast.

The tumultuous series of events Thursday reflects the governance-by-brinkmanship that has defined the 115th Congress. With multiple ideological factions of the Republican Party jockeying for control, government funding bills have become a source of predictable tension—heightened by the closed-door, closed-amendment process by which they've often come together.

When the package was announced on Wednesday, the anticipated obstacle to its passage was House conservatives, members of the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) who decried its deficit-spiking cost. That pushed the House Republican leadership to turn its focus to Democrats, attempting to pick off enough votes to pass the bill and send it to the president's desk. Yet by late Thursday, those efforts appeared temporarily moot, as Republicans in the upper chamber proved, yet again, their own worst enemies.

"Somehow [GOP] leadership will lie to themselves and say the last three weeks were worth it," said a senior House GOP aide, referring to the short lapse of time since the last stopgap bill Republicans shoved through. (The aide spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.) "Meanwhile, the majority is slipping away."

As McConnell and Schumer cruised comfortably into the Capitol this morning, House leaders scrambled to solidify their whip count. Late Wednesday evening, HFC members voted to take an official stance against the bill—meaning that 80 percent of the group's three-dozen-plus members were bound to vote against it.

Representative Mark Walker, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, signaled to his members that he, too, would vote against the deal. "Republicans are being offered a false choice today: either support the military or maintain fiscal discipline," Walker said in a statement today. "I am disappointed this deal creates friction among Republicans who believe in both."

Which meant that House leadership was well aware they'd need Democratic votes to fill the void. Yet Thursday morning, the temperature of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's caucus was anyone's guess. Pelosi spoke for a record-breaking eight hours on the House floor yesterday, a filibuster-style speech that excoriated Congress for its inaction on so-called "dreamers," undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children who were protected by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Many Democratic aides, however, suggested that Pelosi's speech was designed to placate progressives, an implicit admission that this bill would likely pass. Indeed, in a letter to colleagues Thursday morning, Pelosi reiterated her opposition to the bill, but did not instruct them to vote one way or the other. And in a last-minute, closed-door caucus meeting, she told Democrats to "vote their conscience" on the deal, according to a person with direct knowledge.

Ultimately, by early Thursday evening, Democratic and Republican aides alike predicted that some 70 Democrats would break from Pelosi and vote for the budget deal, ensuring its passage. And according to a Republican member of Congress with direct knowledge of the conversations, Secretary of Defense James Mattis had been working the phones, helping move "between 10 and 15" GOP defense hawks who had indicated they would vote no or were undecided to the "yes" column. To the relief of Republican whip team, the House was ready to vote.

Rand Paul had other plans.

Paul's speech hit all the notes that the Republican congressional leadership frequently sounded during the Obama administration. If the last two days have shown anything, however, it's that the party's message has changed to something closer to what House deputy whip Patrick McHenry told me: asked if the package was fiscally responsible, he said: "It's fiscally necessary."

All of which means that as Congress considers the aftershock of another shutdown, the second in Trump's presidency, Republicans are grappling not just with the practical fallout—corralling members for a vote in the early hours, shipping the legislation to the House, hoping enough Democrats hold firm to 'yes' and that, before many folks awoke, the government would be up and running again. They're also considering a more existential question: whether the central tenet of their messaging for the last eight years has, in fact, been a sham.

To answer this question, however, is to answer whether Donald Trump has irrevocably changed the Republican Party—and that's not a question many members, for the moment, are all that interested in confronting.

The Case for a Big, Beautiful Military Parade

Posted: 09 Feb 2018 03:00 AM PST

President Trump asked the Pentagon "to explore a celebration at which all Americans can show their appreciation" for America's military, so we might be seeing the first national military parade since 1991. Will it cost millions? Probably. Will there be counter-demonstrations? Sure. Is there a risk of terrorist attacks? Of course. Should it happen? Absolutely, and here's why.

America's military has been constantly at war since 9/11, yet it's been more than 26 years since we've had a national military parade honoring those serving—even though doing so has long been an American tradition. Ironically, in a country in which millions routinely turn out for huge parades for sports teams, several pundits are already grousing about having just one to honor those who go in harm's way on behalf of all of us.

Having served almost 35 years in uniform, I'm convinced that a national-level parade can help address the much-discussed civilian-military "gap," aid recruiting, and—most importantly—give all Americans the chance to come together as one nation. Couldn't America use more of those kinds of opportunities these days?

Analysts across the political spectrum are concerned that with only 0.43% of Americans serving on active duty, the divide between the military and the society it serves is widening.

Indeed, in 2010 former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that with military bases being concentrated in just a few states, and with the shuttering of many military facilities in the northeast and on the west coast, a "void of relationships and understanding of the armed forces [has been left] in their wake." Consequently, Gates warned that "there is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally, and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend."

Accordingly, isn't anything we can do to re-acquaint Americans with their military (and, perhaps even more importantly, vice versa), a worthy investment for American democracy?

What about the cost? Americans love parades—and advertisers do too. Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade attracts 3.5 million attendees, and almost 50 million television viewers. The TV advertising revenue alone was worth more than $41 million in 2016. The Rose Bowl parade has a much smaller crowd, but nearly the same number of television viewers. CNBC says that participation in that parade "comes with a hefty price tag, but corporate sponsors say the chance to get their company's message out to millions is worth the expense."

Let's get specific: even if the military parade was on the scale of the 1991 effort (estimated to cost around $20 million today), that's a miniscule part of what the Department of Defense already spends on advertising. In 2016 the Government Accountability Office said that the Obama Administration was requesting almost $575 million for the Pentagon "to conduct advertising intended to increase awareness of military service and ultimately generate leads for potential recruits." Obviously, the existing DoD advertising budget can easily cover the event.

And "increasing [the] awareness of military service" is important these days. Last October it was reported that Army recruiters found that of the 33.4 million Americans in their target age group, "only 1.7 million of those young people are of the high quality" the military wants, and "just 136,000" of them "would even be interested in joining the Army."

Maybe they need more "awareness" about military service. Young people often seek "deeper social connections" and have a "need to be part of something bigger than themselves." The military can uniquely provide that. As one expert put it, there "is nothing in the civilian workforce that can approximate the bonding that occurs in the wardroom, ready room, or foxhole." Those in uniform get through hardships, he says, because "they are all in it together." The "mutual self-sacrifice, teamwork, and covering each other's six" he explains, "contribute to individual bonding, unit cohesion, and, ultimately … camaraderie." For lots of young people that could be exactly what they want.

Unfortunately, military service never even occurs to many of America's best and brightest. Since retiring from the military in 2010, I've run across quite a few people—young and old, but especially young—who have never personally seen, let alone spoken with, an active duty member of the armed forces (or even any veterans—who now comprise just 7.3% of the population).   

At most elite universities, for example, the chances of an undergraduate meeting a veteran or serving member of armed forces are very slim. The fanfare of a national parade in a key media market will give at least some of the citizenry who might not otherwise be exposed to the armed forces an opportunity to actually see the wonderful men and women who serve today.

Some critics are claiming—without citing any real data—that the troops don't want a parade. Actually, the troops have never experienced the adulation and respect that can come from a major, national-level parade. Their average age is about 30 so at most they were toddlers when the last military parade of this scale took place in 1991. In truth, there are plenty of indications that troops do want recognition for their service, and it grates on them when they don't get it.

Parades benefit the military in other ways. Former First Sergeant Rod Powers notes that today military parades still operate to "instill pride and discipline" and says military manuals insist that "drill is the foundation of discipline in battle, and that its importance has been proven again and again." He adds that "regular parades in public display the military as a highly trained, disciplined, and professional force." Given the coverage of allegations of military misconduct, the public ought to have the chance their military's disciplined side.

A parade the likes of which we haven't seen since 1991 could help sustain the morale of the force, which has suffered thousands of killed and wounded in the conflicts since 9/11. It can be a meaningful counter to the sense of isolation that I believe is widely-felt in the military, that is, the feeling that the military is "at war" while "America is at the mall."  Frankly, Americans owe those who are serving—and their families—a major event like this to recognize successes, even if the war on against terrorists will surely go on.

New York Times columnist  Ross Douthat observed recently  that even though the U.S. succeeded in dethroning the ISIS caliphate without the misadventures many feared, "nobody seemed to notice." Why? Douthat explains "the media is not adequately reporting an important success because it does not fit into the narrative of Trumpian disaster in which our journalistic entities are all invested."

Whatever "narratives" the press or anyone else may want to propound about a particular politician shouldn't dictate how—or even if—our apolitical military is honored for its warfighting prowess. This is an opportunity for all Americans to set aside, at least for a day, the bitter political "narratives" that are dividing the country.

Of course, no parade could possibly solve America's endemic polarization. Still, if Americans can show themselves that they can come together for this kind of celebration, perhaps we can start the journey to close the partisan divides which are hampering this country from being what Americans want and need it to be.

Isn't it worth a try?

Democrats 'Resistance' to Trump Is Eroding, and so Are Their Poll Numbers

Posted: 09 Feb 2018 03:00 AM PST

A year ago, it was the motto of the self-styled "Resistance"–the coalition of liberals, Democrats, and a few wayward conservatives who were implacably opposed to the Trump administration. The endless refrain represented the refusal to countenance Trump as an ordinary political actor. Doing so, they feared, would eventually lead to the acceptance of racism, xenophobia, corruption, and authoritarianism as a regular and unremarkable feature of politics and society.

People articulating  such views were easy to find—online, on the front pages, and on the streets.The day after President Trump's inauguration, the Women's March turned into one of the largest nationwide demonstrations in American history. A week later, tens of thousands of people turned up at airports to oppose and obstruct Trump's Muslim ban. By harnessing this unqualified opposition, Democrats were able to score shocking political and policy victories: stealing a Senate seat in Alabama, saving Obamacare, winning deep-red districts in state races, and coming close to taking the Virginia House of Delegates in the face of heavy gerrymandering.

And yet, today, in the highest circles of Democratic party politics, resistance is waning. "This is normal enough," many key Democrats seem to be saying. When Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote in advance of Trump's State of the Union several weeks ago, he focused on finding ways "work with" the president, such as infrastructure.

Amid the recent budget and immigration debate, signs of a shift are everywhere. In the past, Democrats treated the president's agenda on immigration as a shocking abrogation of American values. But now some in the party seem open to deals that advance key elements of Trump's anti-immigrant agenda, with moderate Democrats talking emphatically about compromise. "My gut tells me the president wants to get [an immigration deal] done," said West Virginia's Joe Manchin.

Bipartisan rhetoric is nothing new from politicians, but Democrats appear to be slipping towards making substantive policy concessions to Trump. Particularly in the Senate, Democrats have, bit by bit, begun acceding to Trumpian demands. Their attempted shutdown failed after less than three days, as many in the party pushed for a more conciliatory approach.

It's still possible that no deal will be made, particularly in the House. But there can be little doubt that many Democrats  prepared to make serious—and politically unpopular—policy concessions to Trump. At one point, that reportedly included funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border (opposed by 60 percent of Americans). As it stands, the Senate appears to be on the brink of dropping demands to protect the "Dreamers," undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children (protections that are supported by 74 percent of Americans). "He's not asking for the kind of money that would build a wall sea to shining sea," reasoned Missouri's Claire McCaskill. "He's asking for the kind of money that can say he built a wall."

Whatever the outcome, the course of these negotiations demonstrates the erosion of the idea that Trump constitutes a crisis in American governance—that he should be treated differently than any other president. And the same change can be found inching into other Democratic rhetoric. For instance, a recent New York Times interview with former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and Democratic strategist Joe Trippi (entitled "Enough Trump Bashing, Democrats")  emphasized the dangers of overreach, stridency, and partisanship. "We need to focus less on what's wrong with Trump and the Republicans and more on what's right with us," said Patrick. With Trump calling for an infrastructure bill—the holy grail of performative bipartisanship—the pressure for moderate Democrats to work with Trump is likely to grow.

There are plenty of ways to explain this creeping acquiescence. Institutions abhor abnormality; even in politics, parties would often rather fight along familiar lines. The passage of time makes Trump's America seem less strange. Politicos are wary of challenging a president presiding over a thriving economy. And on some level, Trump benefits from the basic dynamic that sustains any cult: His version of reality is so absurd that the only way to peacefully coexist with it is to accept his behavior as normal.

There are also signs of complacency. The closing months of 2017 were marked by resounding Democratic electoral successes in Alabama and Virginia. The new conventional wisdom says that the party will retake the House in this year's midterms, and maybe even the Senate. For the many party leaders who want to be seen as heralds of reasonable compromise, this has seemed to signal that it is safe to abandon the harsh pose of opposition and revert to a comfortable political formlessness.

To be clear, Democratic leaders are not the only members of the American elite who seem increasingly predisposed to grant Trump a presumption of regularity. The tenor of press coverage of Trump has also become more muted, with ordinary discussions of his policy initiatives competing for space with ever-present scandals. And the Republican Party, of course, has long quelled most of the dissent in its ranks over the president.

But for the Democratic Party, the current moment of elite acquiescence to Trump presents unique and profound dangers.

A Democratic midterm wave has never been inevitable. Democrats have advanced this far because they have positioned themselves to take advantage of widespread anger at Trump.

Recent shifts in elite opinion do not seem to reflect any change of public sentiment. Trump is nearly as unpopular as ever. Voters disapprove of the president by huge margins. Opinion polling consistently finds that over half the country "strongly disapproves" of him. Indeed, loathing for Trump is so profound that he is able to move public opinion towards almost any position, simply by taking the other side. (In one striking example, Trump's opposition to NFL protests appeared to make those protests more popular.) Tellingly, there does not seem to be a single high-profile policy dispute in which the president's position commands majority support.

Until now, Democrats have capably exploited this political opportunity. They have, in effect, employed the same obstructionist tactics that were utilized by Republicans against President Obama. By declaring the president anathema, Democrats electrified their party and mobilized everyone who is frightened of him. This is a particularly canny tactic because, as was demonstrated in the Obama era, even voters frustrated with gridlock and chaos mostly blame the president and his party.

In 2010 and 2014, unrelenting Republican opposition to Obama preceded huge midterm gains for the GOP, despite the fact that he was much less unpopular than Trump is today. While opposition to Obama helped mobilize the partisan base, opposition to Trump is a true majoritarian position.

"The Resistance" has been mocked from the left as naïve and Trump-obsessed, and mocked from the center and right as dogmatic, unpractical, and melodramatic. It's an easy target: it relies heavily on political newcomers with old-fashioned ideas about democratic process and American values; it's propelled by Trump's vulgarity as much as his policy proposals; it is apt to celebrate anyone who shares their contempt for the president, including no small share of cranks and charlatans.

Perhaps because of this, tastemakers and party leaders have overlooked that the anti-Trump movement's core political prescription—uncompromising opposition—has proven itself the single most effective way to frustrate the Trump agenda and elect his opponents. In 2017, nothing unified voters more than their aversion to the president. When anti-Trump sentiment was peaking last December, the Democrats' generic ballot advantage actually exceeded the gaps produced by economic collapse and mass unemployment in 2010 and 2008. This is no parochial gang of partisans: It's fully half the country, highly mobilized, and the proximate cause of recent Democratic strength.

As a result, Democratic electoral fortunes depend on maintaining Trump's unpopularity, much more than any rhetoric of their own. Uniform and unequivocal opposition has helped weigh Trump down in the public eye; abandoning this successful strategy for equivocation and compromise might lift him up. Facing a gerrymandered House and a bad Senate map, it doesn't take much to put Democrats' predicted wave at risk. Already, their huge polling lead is shrinking.

Democrats worry that a single-minded focus on Trump will leave them without an agenda after he's gone. But a new, conciliatory approach will mean that "after he's gone" gets further away. The anti-Trump coalition may not last forever, but at this moment, it represents, in raw vote-getting terms, the most powerful force in American political life—the unified inverse of the nation's reactionary minority. As Democrats' stubborn resistance wanes, they risk eroding that unified coalition, and prolonging the crisis of the Trump presidency indefinitely.

When Divorce Is an Opportunity

Posted: 09 Feb 2018 01:50 AM PST

STOCKHOLM—Sweden has the reputation of being one of the best countries in the world for gender equality. The women's employment rate in Sweden is the highest in the European Union, and is nearly equal to the men's employment rate. Nearly 90 percent of Swedish fathers take paternity leave—it is not unusual to see men pushing baby carriages alone in the city.

This can be disconcerting for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have arrived in Sweden in recent years—163,000 new immigrants arrived in the country of 9 million in 2016 alone. Although Sweden has lately reversed its open-door migration policy, the country for a long time admitted the most asylum-seekers per capita in Europe. Many of these refugees and other immigrants to Sweden come from countries like Somalia and Iraq, where gender roles are more uneven: Men tend to work and women tend to raise families. In Sweden, though, women—even immigrants—are expected by the government to work. The government offers free Swedish language classes and job placement counselors to immigrants, and launched a program in 2017 aimed at reducing unemployment among foreign-born women. In the immigrant-heavy suburb of Rinkeby, for instance, I ran into a man named Adam Hassan, who was an accountant in Ethiopia until migrating to Sweden with his wife three years ago. He got a job in a supermarket, she got a job in a school, and now, during the day, he watches their baby son, pushing him around in a stroller. "There, the mother takes care of the kids, and the man brings in money," he told me placidly. "It's different here."

Not all immigrants find it as easy as Hassan does to adjust to Sweden's gender norms. And that may be contributing to a high divorce rate in Sweden among immigrants from more traditionally patriarchal countries, compared to native-born Swedes, according to Merhdad Darvishpour, a sociologist at Malarden University who himself immigrated from Iran. (Iranians are one of the largest minorities in Sweden. Many of them arrived in the country in the 1980s.) In a recent study of women in Sweden who had been married at least once, 28 percent of people born to Swedish parents had divorced within 15 years of first getting married; that share was much higher for immigrant women from more patriarchal countries. (The study looked at women who had first been married between 1983 and 2007.) Nearly 60 percent of women from the countries in the Horn of Africa, 53 percent of women from sub-Saharan Africa, and 48 percent of women from Iran had divorced in Sweden within 15 years of getting married. Overall, women from the Horn of Africa were 2.24 times more likely to get divorced than women born to Swedish parents, and women from Iran were 2.15 times more likely, the study showed. Women from other countries where gender norms are similar to those in Sweden had much lower chances of getting divorced—immigrants from Western Europe living in Sweden were actually less likely to get divorced than Swedes, for example.

The divorce rates for immigrants in Sweden seem especially high when compared to the divorce rates in their home countries. In Iran, for example, about 20 percent of marriages now end in divorce, while 48 percent of Iranian women in Sweden had divorced within 15 years of marriage, according to the study. Another study showed that just 25 percent of women ages 15-49 in sub-Saharan Africa had divorced within their first 20 years of marriage (though the rates varied dramatically by country), as opposed to the 70 percent of sub-Saharan women living in Sweden who had divorced within 15 years of marriage. That the divorce rates are higher in Sweden may not be solely due to women's higher workforce participation. In many patriarchal countries, divorce is less accepted, and it can be legally more difficult to get divorced. In Sweden, on the other hand, divorce is socially more acceptable, and more feasible.

Often, divorce is seen as a negative development. When families split up, children can find it difficult to adjust emotionally. Women and men who had depended on being a two-income household struggle with the new financial realities of single life. Divorce can also be lonely and isolating. But for women in Sweden who have migrated from more patriarchal countries, divorce may not be as negative, Darvishpour told me. "Maybe divorce is not a problem," he said. "Maybe it's an opportunity."

Arriving in a country like Sweden can reshape dynamics between the men and women who make the journey, he says. Men who dominated their families because they had the economic power in their home countries lose that power when they integrate into a more gender-equal country like Sweden. They react to this loss of power in two ways, according to Darvishpour—they either adjust to their loss of power and accept being more equal with their wives, as Hassan did, or they try to reassert their lost power. In some cases, women submit to this. In others, they resist it, which can lead to divorce.

Women from patriarchal societies, after all, gain power when they integrate into a country like Sweden. There are more economic opportunities for them relative to their home countries, and resources for women's rights are more developed—it's easier for a woman to divorce her husband, or to live on her own, for example. The welfare system is also extensive in Sweden, meaning that even women of low socioeconomic status can leave their husbands with no jobs and receive low-cost health care, education, job training, and a stipend from the government. In Denmark, a country similar to Sweden because it has an extensive safety net and many opportunities for women, immigrant women initiated divorce more than men did, and the welfare state was instrumental in "liberating women and children from life in dysfunctional families," a 2015 study found. (This safety net is less extensive in the United States, which may be one reason why divorce rates of immigrants are still lower than that of the native-born population.)

Another paper studying six Iranian divorcees who had arrived in Sweden still married found that men adjusted more slowly to new gender norms than women did. One male interviewee whose wife had left him told interviewers that she started changing once she began attending Swedish for Foreigners, a class in which immigrants learn the local language and customs. "She started behaving like a rival or business partner, trying to confirm her share in everything," he told an interviewer. Another Iranian immigrant told interviewers that she and her husband started fighting when she began making more money than he did in Sweden, and asked him to start contributing equally in terms of childcare and other household duties, but he refused. "The change in power relations can intensify the problems in bad relationships," Darvishpour said.

Some women in Sweden prefer not to work. After a decade in Sweden, just 64 percent of migrant women were working, compared to 80 percent of native Swedes, according to a 2014 report funded by the European Union. But in his own study of Iranian immigrants to Sweden, Darvishpour found that men often find immigration more challenging than women do. Many of the men he spoke to had good jobs in their home countries, and were often unemployed in Sweden, or working jobs that they were overqualified for. They suddenly had a lower status than they did back home. The women he spoke to, on the other hand, did not have as many economic opportunities in their home countries, so they had little change in status when they arrived in Sweden. If they hadn't been working at home, nothing changed when they arrived; if they had been working and found a job when they arrived, they became better off in Sweden.

One woman told Darvishpour that she had wanted to divorce her husband in Iran because she didn't love him, but was worried about supporting her child if she left him. "After immigration, I discovered, however, that I had the possibility to stand on my own legs, creating a new life where I could make my own decisions," she told him. After one year in Sweden, she filed for divorce.

There are trends in Sweden that may make this emboldening of immigrant women more difficult in the future. Sweden has limited some of the welfare benefits available to asylum-seekers—people whose asylum applications are denied no longer receive a monthly cash benefit, and paid parental leave for immigrants has been reduced. With less of a safety net, women may be less inclined to take the risk of leaving their husbands.

In addition, segregation in Sweden—with immigrants concentrated in places like the suburbs of Stockholm and the industrial town of Malmo—can limit how much immigrant communities are influenced by Swedish gender norms. I talked to a Kurdish refugee named Sevi—she didn't want to give her last name for fear of retribution from her neighbors—who said that in the segregated suburb of Husby where she lives, she is expected to obey traditional Kurdish cultural norms. Men loiter outside apartment complexes and harass women who aren't wearing veils or who come home late, she said.

"Unfortunately, there is too much segregation now," Amineh Kakabaveh, a Swedish member of Parliament who came to Sweden as an Iranian Kurdish refugee, told me. Kakabaveh was able to benefit from Sweden's attitudes toward women—once she arrived in the country, she got an education, ran for office, and put off marriage, things that would have been difficult to do back home. But she worries that other women won't have the same opportunities in the Sweden of the future.

Still, for many women who come to Sweden, the country does represent a chance at independence. Many of Sweden's recent immigrants have been asylum-seekers from unstable regions in Asia and Africa. They arrive in Sweden to escape the terrors of their old lives, and find a completely new world, where they're expected to adapt to new norms about gender and work. Some asylum-seekers, especially men, may resist these changes and cling to the old world for as long as they can. But for many women, Sweden represents a new beginning.

<i>Radio Atlantic</i>: From 'I, Tonya' to 'Cat Person,' Is 'Based On a True Story' Better?

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 09:00 PM PST

Conor Friedersdorf recently argued in The Atlantic that in this moment, when the truth is bitterly contested, fiction presents us an opportunity. It allows us to step into another person's perspective and talk about gray areas without the problems of detailing an actual person's private moments. But does blurring the lines between truth and fiction undermine the messy complexities of the real world? David Sims and Megan Garber join to discuss the spate of recent pop culture that aims to recast reality.

Links

What Does It Take to Get Fired in the Trump White House?

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 06:07 PM PST

Deputy White House Press Secretary Raj Shah had an impossible job in Thursday's press briefing: Go to the lectern and explain what happened with the resignation of Staff Secretary Rob Porter. Sure enough, Shah struggled.

In a rare step for this administration, Shah acknowledged errors in the White House's approach—"We all could have done better over the last few days in dealing with this situation"—but he wouldn't say what those missteps were, and he left only more questions about what the White House knew and what led to Porter's exit.

Fundamentally, the question remains what top staffers, and especially Chief of Staff John Kelly, knew about allegations of physical and verbal abuse made by two of Porter's ex-wives; what changed between Tuesday, when the White House made supportive statements, and Wednesday, when Porter resigned; and what standard the White House uses in hiring.

Here's a brief timeline of the Porter story. On Monday and Tuesday, the Daily Mail published interviews with both ex-wives detailing stories of choking and punching. Tuesday night, Kelly issued a statement calling Porter "a man of true integrity and honor and I can't say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante, and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him." Wednesday morning, The Intercept published photos of Colbie Holderness, Porter's first wife, taken after he had allegedly assaulted her. During the day, Porter resigned, though his departure date was unclear. (Shah said Porter's last day was Wednesday, though he returned to the White House to clean out his desk Thursday.) Wednesday night, Kelly partially walked back his comments. "I was shocked by the new allegations released today against Rob Porter. There is no place for domestic violence in our society," he said, while adding, "I stand by my previous comments of the Rob Porter that I have come to know since becoming Chief of Staff, and believe every individual deserves the right to defend their reputation."

Various outlets have reported that Kelly and other staffers were aware of at least some of the allegations against Porter. Both ex-wives have said they told the FBI about them as part of his security-clearance process (Porter was working on an interim clearance), and Kelly is said to have known about a 2010 protective order against Porter. Shah wouldn't say what Kelly knew when. When asked what had changed between Tuesday and Wednesday, Shah said, "The reports had additional allegations, they had more information." Later in the briefing, pressed on what changed for Kelly, Shah seemed to suggest the photos made the difference. "I know he hadn't seen images prior to his statement, the statement on Tuesday night," Shah said.

But that explanation creates its own problems. Does that mean the White House only believes allegations from women who can present photos to substantiate them? After all, both women had told the FBI about the abuse. This is dangerous territory for the White House, which has flatly stated that multiple reports of sexual assault against the president are untrue, as are the president's own boasts about it in a video.

Shah insisted the photos were not the only factor. "We do take allegations of misconduct, of domestic violence, other issues like that very seriously," Shah said. "In this instance, in the case of Rob Porter, we relied on the background check investigative process. That process hadn't been completed. We're relying on the information that we had." At another moment in the briefing, he said, "You've got to take allegations seriously, you've got to take denials seriously."

This is the legal standard for a background check. But there's no reason the White House has to adhere to the same standard that any allegation must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, or that any denial bears the same weight as the allegation, in making decisions about the employment of its staff. The question is what caliber of person should be working at the highest reaches of government. (There's also a cognitive dissonance between the White House saying the FBI must be allowed to complete the process at the same time that the president attacks the FBI, having fired its director over another investigation.)

My colleague David Frum notes that Trump has shown no hesitations about hiring accused domestic abusers in the past, to say nothing of an allegation against him. Shah also insisted that Porter had resigned, and not been pressured to leave. He wouldn't answer on what might have happened had Porter not resigned.

Reporters were also curious whether personal relationships clouded the White House's judgment—including a reported romantic relationship between Porter and Communications Director Hope Hicks. Shah said that staffers were surprised about the difference between the allegations against Porter and the man they knew, and said Hicks had recused herself from some matters.

The problem is one of credibility: Does anyone believe that the White House, despite knowing about the allegations, would have gotten rid of Porter if not for the publication of the photographs? Or what if the Daily Mail had never published the allegations? There's a parallel at play with former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn. In January 2017, he lied to Vice President Mike Pence and, separately, to FBI agents about his conversations with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. But even after the White House became aware that Flynn had lied to Pence (it's unclear when they learned he'd lied to the FBI), he wasn't forced to resign until February 13, after The Washington Post reported on it. In the Porter case, outlets including Axios reported that Kelly was urging Porter to tough it out as late as Tuesday night.

Would Porter still have a job at the White House if The Intercept hadn't published the photos? Nothing that Shah said Thursday suggests otherwise. Reporters in the briefing room seemed to smell blood in the water Thursday, demanding to know if there would be more resignations in coming days. Even if Porter is the only staffer to leave, it's clear there will be more questions, since Thursday's briefing did little to clarify a messy situation.

<em>The Atlantic</em> Daily: The Bigger Question Remains Unanswered

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 03:32 PM PST

What We're Following

Women and the White House:  The revelation that two ex-wives of former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter told the FBI in the course of a background check that he had abused them had many observers wondering how Porter could have been hired at all. Yet the allegations of violence against women committed by President Trump and other former members of his team may explain why such serious claims could have been overlooked. Meanwhile, the president's approval rating among white, working-class women is dropping. That news reminded me of a message from Nicole, a reader in California, who said she had voted for Trump in part because of family pressure: "More important to me [than other issues] is his stance on everything from women's rights to the environment. Most disturbing is my complete lack of trust in this man."

The FBI: This week, the Senate Homeland Security Committee released the full logs of texts between two FBI employees, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. Though Trump and his allies have pointed to these texts as evidence that the FBI is politically biased, they actually show that the bureau's primary political allegiance is to itself, David Graham writes. As for the president, his foremost complaint about FBI independence may be not that it's partisan, but that it's not partisan enough.

Get Ready: The opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics  will take place tomorrow, February 8. Athletes are already training at the site in Pyeongchang, South Korea. You can see photos of the preparations here. Among the competitors to watch is Nathan Chen, an 18-year-old American figure skater who, ahead of his first Olympic games, is already considered one of the best athletes in the sport's history.

Rosa Inocencio Smith


Snapshot

This image from a camera mounted on the Falcon Heavy shows the rocket's payload: a mannequin in a space suit riding in a red Tesla Roadster. Here's where astronomers say the car is headed. (SpaceX)

Who We're Talking To

Karen Crouse, a sports writer, explains the parenting secrets she's observed in Norwich, Vermont, a town that's raised a string of Olympic athletes over the past 30 years.

Larry Smarr, a computer engineer, describes how he used a supercomputer to monitor his health, look into his organs, and even help direct his own surgery.

How did an avowed white-supremacist candidate for Congress make it onto the Illinois ballot? Christopher Mooney, a politics professor, tells Elaine Godfrey: "Anytime you've got a Nazi running, somebody was asleep at the switch." Here's what happened.


Evening Read

Rachel Donadio reports from Strasbourg, France:

Daphne Caruana Galizia was less than a mile from home when her Peugeot 108 exploded and burst into flames last October, killing her instantly and sending shrapnel into a nearby field. She was 53 and the most famous investigative journalist in Malta. In that tiny country, her scoops consistently made life uncomfortable for the powerful, whether in banks or the prime minister's office. Investigators later found that a sophisticated device had been planted on the car and remotely detonated. In December, after turning to the FBI and Dutch forensic experts for help, Maltese authorities arrested 10 people and eventually charged three Maltese nationals with carrying out the attack. But the bigger question—the one that has reverberated far beyond Malta—remains unanswered: Who ordered the killing?

Keep reading here, as Rachel lays out the facts of the case and what it means for Europe.


What Do You Know … About Global Affairs?

With one year of the Trump presidency over, pundits' initial fears of a meltdown in U.S.–Chinese relations have not come to pass; in fact, Benjamin Carlson argues in The Atlantic's March issue that Chinese citizens admire Trump, while the country's leaders are eager to work with him. China's rising #MeToo movement is notable because it has lived almost entirely on social media, where activists have spread awareness of feminist causes and subverted censorship with viral posts. Yet political speech in China could soon face even more obstacles, as the government races to implement an algorithmic system to surveil all citizens.

Can you remember the other key facts from this week's global coverage? Test your knowledge below:

1. The leader of the youth wing of Germany's ____________ Party has launched a campaign to oppose a governing coalition with Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union.

Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.

2. There are now 14,000 American troops in ____________.

Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.

3. A new law in ____________ places limits on public statements about certain aspects of the Holocaust.

Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.

Annabelle Timsit

Answers: Social Democratic / afghanistan / poland


Urban Developments

Our partner site CityLab explores the cities of the future and investigates the biggest ideas and issues facing city dwellers around the world. Gracie McKenzie shares today's top stories:

"My fear is that sometimes these systems act as empathy overrides—that we are allowing these machines to make decisions that are too difficult for us to make as human beings." Seemingly benign high-tech tools are evolving how government criminalizes the poor.

Some 14,000 vacant lots pockmark the city of Baltimore. Meet a lone ecologist who's spent years running experiments there, looking for the best way to bring the city's dead spaces back to life.

In the U.S. alone, the annual cost of congestion is up $10 billion from 2016, to $305 billion, according to a new study—the largest of its kind. Here's how that breaks down by city and compares with the rest of the world.

For more updates from the urban world, subscribe to one of CityLab's newsletters.


Reader Response

Many people are responding to The Atlantic's decision to close comments on our site and open a new section, Letters, for reader feedback and ideas. From Billy Flynn in Los Angeles:

I should begin by commending you on your move to strike down the comments section and replace it with an online space for letters from readers. To many this may seem an arbitrary or even censorious change of format, but in this digital age there is much to be said for promoting simple letter-writing: with this maneuver you simultaneously deny those who would foment toxicity an easy forum for their fulminations and encourage those who have something to say to explore a medium that requires careful self-reflection.

From Taylor Cappadona in Nashville, Tennessee:

I find it very sad that you guys are removing your comments section. The section has become a great place to share ideas, discuss opinions, and meet like-minded and not-like-minded people. I truly adore the conversations and humor many users impart on the conversation. For such serious issues it is nice to see how others feel and get other perspectives for a well-rounded opinion on the issues at hand. I would consider some of the people who make comments to be friends and it will be sad to lose these connections.

Read many more thoughtful reactions from readers here. For those missing an immediate online exchange, the comment feature on our Facebook page is still going strong, as is the independent Disqus group some longtime readers launched a while back. And our inbox is open: letters@theatlantic.com.


Verbs

Newsweek elegized, mantis views visualized, Olympics Disneyfied, baselines shifted.


Time of Your Life

Happy birthday to Kate's friend Adam (a year younger than MTV); to Joe's wife, Janice (born around the time Elvis Presley entered the U.S. music charts); from Christian to Mallory (a year younger than The Simpsons); to Meredith's brother Jeremy (twice the age of Toy Story); to Don's mom, Laura (a year younger than FM radio); and to Eric's wife, Sara (a year younger than the Super Bowl).

Do you or a loved one have a birthday coming up? Sign up for a birthday shout-out here, and click here to explore the Timeline feature for yourself.


Meet The Atlantic Daily's team here, and contact us here.

Did you get this newsletter from a friend? Sign yourself up here.

<i>The Atlantic</i> Politics & Policy Daily: Nancy Drew a Line

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 02:48 PM PST

Today in 5 Lines

The House and Senate are expected to vote on a massive budget deal that will prevent another government shutdown and increase federal spending by about $300 billion. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she will not vote for the bill because it doesn't address the so-called "dreamers," undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, but it's not clear how many Democrats will follow her lead. The White House said President Trump "was surprised" by the reports that former staff secretary Rob Porter abused two of his ex-wives. Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly knew that Porter had issues preventing him from receiving full security clearance. Trump met with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to discuss foreign policy.


Today on The Atlantic

  • Turning on Trump: New poll results show that President Trump's support among white, working-class women in the Midwest is waning. (Ronald Brownstein)

  • 'Somebody Was Asleep at the Switch': Here's how a Nazi got on the ballot in an Illinois congressional race. (Elaine Godfrey)

  • The White House's Domestic-Abuse Problem: It's no surprise that none of President Trump's staff found the domestic-abuse allegations against Rob Porter disqualifying, since several members of the team have faced similar claims. (David Frum)

Follow stories throughout the day with our Politics & Policy portal.


Snapshot

Principal Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah takes questions in his first formal White House briefing. Leah Millis / Reuters


What We're Reading

What Debt?: The Republican Party used to demand massive spending cuts, and adamantly oppose raising the debt ceiling. They seem to have changed their tune. (Damian Paletta and Erica Werner, The Washington Post)

'Välkommen, Senator McConnell': The GOP's current economic policies are making the United States more like Sweden, writes Kevin D. Williamson. (National Review)

'From Fallujah to FBI Investigation': California Representative Duncan Hunter is an ex-Marine who served three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now the lawmaker's colleagues worry he's "on the brink of personal and political ruin." (Rachael Bade and John Bresnahan, Politico)

A Bigger Battleground: As part of their plan to retake the House, Democrats are now targeting more than 100 Republican-held congressional districts in the November midterms. (Alex Seitz-Wald, NBC News)

TTYL, HFC: If the budget deal announced by the Senate on Wednesday passes, it could be the end of the House Freedom Caucus. (Stan Collender, Forbes)


Visualized

'We're Entering a Missile Renaissance: Only five countries can hit any place on earth with a missile. That could soon change. (Sergio Pecanha and Keith Collins, The New York Times)


Question of the Week

In The Atlantic's March issue, Jonathan Rauch and Ben Wittes argue that "the best hope of defending the country from Trump's Republican enablers, and of saving the Republican Party from itself" is for all voters—Republicans and Democrats alike—to vote against Republican candidates at every opportunity, "until the party either rights itself or implodes."

Do you believe the GOP needs to be defended from Donald Trump? If so, do you agree with this strategy?

Share your response here, and we'll feature a few in Friday's Politics & Policy Daily.

-Written by Elaine Godfrey (@elainejgodfrey)

The Dark Consequences of Poland's New Holocaust Law

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 11:56 PM PST

PARIS—The Polish scholar Jan T. Gross, an expert on the country during World War II, didn't mince words when I asked him about Poland's new law that would criminalize mentioning the complicity of "the Polish nation" in the crimes of the Holocaust. "It's terrible," he said by phone from Berlin, where he lives. "It criminalizes all survivors of the Holocaust. Every Jew who is still alive and comes from Poland could be prosecuted." That might be going a bit far—it's still quite unclear how the law would be applied, and it's hard to imagine extradition cases for discussing Polish war crimes outside Poland. But his concern is worth heeding.

Gross isn't the only one who's upset. Israel's government is up in arms. A visit by Israel's education minister, Naftali Bennett, to Poland was canceled this week after he criticized the law. ("The blood of Polish Jews cries from the ground, and no law will silence it," he said later.) U.S. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said the law would affect "freedom of speech and academic inquiry." The leadership of Warsaw's POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews issued a critical statement. So did the International Auschwitz Council, a board of advisers to the death-camp-turned-museum. And so did dozens of Polish historians, writing in The Guardian.

I can understand how Poles would be upset by the notion of "Polish death camps"—a term the new law criminalizes—since the camps were set up and run by Nazi Germany on Polish soil. (Germany and Israel have in fact called that phrase inaccurate in official statements.) But this law isn't about the finer points of history. It is aimed at shoring up the right-wing base of the governing Law and Justice party—and it has done so at the expense of Poland's standing on the world stage, and potentially its security.

Since news of the law broke, the Polish government has gone into a PR offensive. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki gave a primetime speech saying Poland respected the memory of those who died in the Holocaust. Polish President Andrzej Duda signed the bill into law this week but also said he would send it to the constitutional court for clarification, buying time for possible amendments.

But it's hard to see how they can walk it back. Proposed by a hardliner in Law and Justice, it's significant that the law was rushed through just days after undercover reporters for a private Polish television channel filmed a neo-Nazi group in Poland waving Nazi flags, wearing Nazi uniforms, and burning a swastika. The report prompted Polish authorities to open an investigation into "public propagation of fascism." But that, of course, put Law and Justice in a tough spot with its die-hards, who were already upset after a recent cabinet reshuffle had brought in some moderates. The reshuffle, in turn, came after Poland was trying to make nice after the European Commission threatened it with sanctions if it moved ahead with changes to its judiciary that European officials say threaten the rule of law—the biggest test yet for the bloc.

Messages crafted for domestic consumption reverberate far beyond national borders. "I wouldn't say this is a completely planned and calculated action, it's more a reflection of a complete self-isolation and lack of understanding of other countries," Pawel Machcewicz, a historian and former director of a new WWII museum in Gdansk, told me. "They are surprised but they cannot back down because for their constituents that will mean the weakness, the betrayal of Polish dignity," he said.

If anyone knows how important history is for this government, it's Machcewicz, who was ousted as director of the museum after the government challenged it on various grounds, notably that it didn't adequately depict the suffering of the Polish people.

Geography is destiny, and Poland is stuck between Germany and Russia. A few decades ago, Poland had a different dream: to join Europe. Today's Polish government rails against Europe. "Poland in just two years became an absolutely isolated country in the Western world and it's extremely disturbing, taking into account the growing Russian aggressiveness," Machcewicz added. "So this is not only about history, this is also about Polish independence and Polish security. I find it very deeply disturbing."

Gross told me he didn't think the law would have many practical consequences for established historians, although he worried that it might prevent younger ones from studying the Holocaust. Above all, he was concerned about the teaching of history in Polish schools. "No one will dare to teach the Holocaust," he said. "The ignorance in Polish society about the Holocaust is extraordinary. There were surveys made and the majority of the people who were asked the question 'Who suffered more during World War II under German occupation, Poles or Jews?'—the majority of the people responded 'Poles.' How ignorant do you have to be?"

Ignorant or aggrieved? A few years ago I interviewed Piotr Glinski, Poland's culture minister and deputy prime minister, about the controversy over the World War II museum in Gdansk. "Poland is associated mainly with the Holocaust," he told me then. "The world knows about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising on April 19, 1943, but it doesn't recognize the Warsaw Rising that took a much bigger toll." He was referring to the interlude in 1944 when Poles fought the Nazis with limited help from the Allies for 63 days before the Red Army invaded. (An impressive museum in Warsaw dedicated to the Rising opened in 2004.) Poland's "obligation," Glinski added, was "to maintain a conversation about our sacrifice, a conversation with world public opinion."

I've often thought back to this line as capturing the inchoate resentment that seems to drive the current Polish government. The French political scientist Dominique Moïsi has written that three emotions tend to drive politics: humiliation, hope, and fear. Poland falls into the humiliation camp. A feeling of grievance, a sense that the wider world doesn't truly understand the suffering of the Polish people, but also a sense that the Holocaust—in which three million Polish Jews were slaughtered on Polish soil—was giving Poland a bad name.

Weaponized humiliation is a dangerous thing. "Something much more important, in my judgment, is what they have done internally," Gross told me about the new law. "They have stirred anti-Semitism. This has always been part of this party's spiritual legacy."

"For God's sake, these Jewish victims were Polish citizens!" Gross added. "These guys who say 'They the Jews' and 'We the Poles' are out of their minds."

Since the law was proposed last month, the atmosphere in Poland seems to have shifted. A prominent television commentator referred to Jews as "kikes" on Twitter, in a post that was later removed. The director of a state-run television station said on the air this week that Nazi death camps should actually be called Jewish, because "Who managed the crematoria there?" he asked, according to the Associated Press's report.

"We feel that suddenly the world in which we are living is collapsing, in all possible ways," Anna Chipczynska, the president of the Jewish community of Warsaw, told the Financial Times. "We have got into a very dangerous and vicious circle [and] it is becoming every day more difficult to get out of it."

There had been worrying signs for some time. In 2016, Poland's public broadcaster TVP broadcast a 12-minute program highly critical of Ida, the 2014 Academy Award-winning film by Pawel Pawlikowski, before airing the film. Shot in beautiful black-and-white, the film is set in Communist Poland in the 1960s and tells the story of a young novice, orphaned during Poland's Nazi occupation, who before entering a convent discovers her Jewish past. Following the broadcast of the film on television, the broadcaster added cards that said that many non-Jewish Poles had helped Jews escape from the Nazis. That may be true enough, but the cards were clearly intended to undercut the film's vision. The Polish Directors' Guild had protested that adding them showed "not only the lack of respect toward the creators but also the viewers, who lose the opportunity to interpret the film on their own." They added: "It's a violation of good conduct and a clear example of manipulative propaganda practices, which do not fit the standards of media in a democratic state."

Regeneration after the Holocaust is perhaps the single defining element of postwar European life. It shaped Europe and the push for a European Union that would connect countries economically and politically, and that would guarantee human rights and freedoms. Today, survivors of the Holocaust are dying. Younger Europeans know of it only as a mention in history books.

"We are not responsible for a past on which we had no influence," the director of Warsaw's POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the chairman of the board of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland wrote in a statement. "However, we are responsible for what we do about that past today. Above all, we owe the truth to the victims of past crimes, and the truth is fueled by an open and factual discussion."

On display in the World War II museum in Gdansk is a case displaying the keys to the homes of Jewish Poles who were murdered by their Polish neighbors in the town of Jedwabne, an infamous episode during the war. The government is trying to change the museum exhibit, although it's unclear how that particular display might be affected. The former director and others are suing for copyright infringement, on the grounds that the museum exhibit they designed should not be violated. Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit—and the new law—the keys exist.

The Amazon-ification of Whole Foods

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 02:44 PM PST

Amazon announced on Thursday that certain members of its Prime subscription program can order Whole Foods items to be delivered within two hours. The program debuts this week in several neighborhoods in Austin, Dallas, Virginia Beach, and Cincinnati. Delivery is free for orders over $35—not exactly a challenge at a store nicknamed "Whole Paycheck"—with a $4.99 charge for cheaper purchases. Desperate dinner-party hosts can expedite one-hour delivery of fresh produce for $7.99, in many cases less than the cost of an Uber to the grocery store and back.

When Amazon spent $14 billion on Whole Foods last year in its largest-ever acquisition, many analysts saw three obvious advantages for the retail giant. First, its CEO, Jeff Bezos, would Amazon-ify Whole Foods, cutting the prices of popular items to increase foot traffic and overall revenue. Second, Amazon would use Whole Foods' 400-plus upper-middle-class locations as distribution nodes for a range of products. Third, the company would try to turn Whole Foods into an online-retail company, by allowing households to order food on smartphones (or via a smart speaker like the Amazon Echo) and have fresh produce dropped off at their doorstep, just like they would a book or a toothbrush.

The analysts were right. Amazon is doing all of the above—cutting prices and leveraging Whole Foods' locations to build an on-demand food-delivery service. And that on-demand food-and-meal delivery service may be set to take off. A study commissioned by the market-research firm Euromonitor projected that the market for such services will grow 15 times faster than the restaurant business through the end of this decade. And this might just be the beginning. Greg Greeley, Amazon's head of Prime, is transitioning to a new position overseeing Whole Foods' integration into the company, CNBC has reported.

It would be a mistake to treat every Amazon announcement as an Amazon accomplishment. On-demand Whole Foods delivery could turn out to be a giant mess. Indeed, Amazon has struggled with grocery-delivery services before, shutting down its Amazon Fresh program in several cities last year. Six months from now, the dominant news story about "Whole Foods Prime" could be a wave of anecdotes about overwhelmed Whole Foods workers in Virginia Beach or Cincinnati, or tales of zucchini that arrived so lukewarm and smushed as to resemble ratatouille. Execution matters, and excellent execution isn't an inevitability, even for a logistics master like Amazon.

But it would be a bigger mistake to analyze Thursday's news in a vacuum, because this announcement is bigger than heirloom tomatoes and two-hour delivery windows. In the broader context of Amazon's ambitions—to build an operating system for the home, to expand into pharmacies and health care, to become a hit-making television production studio—this is the logical next step in turning Prime into the ultimate "life bundle," a single membership program to bind consumers to every possible commercial need. As Amazon extends into more product areas, it can own both the search platform and the product, so that when a dad says to the smart speaker on his counter, "Alexa, I need brown rice and pork," the product that arrives is an Amazon-branded box containing Amazon–Whole Foods–branded rice and pork.

This sort of vertical integration is invaluable for Amazon. For one thing, the creation of an on-demand Whole Foods product makes the company's Prime subscription more valuable. Enriching Prime is arguably Amazon's most important goal, given the lifetime value of a Prime subscriber. What's more, as Amazon becomes the top-of-mind destination for not only books but also toiletries, medicine, and chicken breasts, it becomes the first-stop destination for all of its customers' searches.

And what comes with search volume? Advertising. Indeed, Amazon's ad business—which includes sponsored ads on Alexa, suggested items on Amazon search pages, and even ad boxes around the internet on other sitesgrew 60 percent last quarter, faster than Google's or Facebook's, albeit from a lower base. The business is on track to make as much as $10 billion in revenue by the end of this year, or about one-quarter of Facebook's total revenue in 2017. As Amazon draws more consumers into its orbit, it will also pull competitors into a deflationary cycle: Each time the company enters a new industry, like those for grocery stores or pharmacies, the stock valuations of the sector's largest companies decline, as investors anticipate that Amazon will pull down the industry's profits to zero in order to draw in consumers and maximize cash flow.

Amazon was a fascinating buyer for Whole Foods for just this reason. It is the anti–Whole Foods, forever evincing a no-frills obsession with low prices and absolute convenience over artisanal touches. And yet, the two companies are perfect partners. Whole Foods became a kind of cult for its most devoted customers, who sacrificed their weekly food budget on the altar of artisanal produce. Jeff Bezos's ultimate ambition is similarly cultish: to build a pan-commercial enterprise, where every consumer question is best answered by first asking Amazon. The company is a leveraged bet on absolute customer convenience. And nothing says "absolute customer convenience" like yelling the word kale! at a box in one's living room and finding fresh greens on one's doorstep within 120 minutes.

The Real Bias at the FBI

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 01:33 PM PST

Depending on who you ask, you can get some pretty disparate views of the role of the nation's most important law-enforcement bureau.

Certain Democrats were or remain convinced that the FBI's handling of the Hillary Clinton email-server case—from then-Director James Comey's condemnation of her "extremely careless" behavior to his late-October letter briefly reopening the investigation—was intended to hand the election to Donald Trump. Trump sees a conspiracy, too—to hand the election to Clinton. He's gone so far as to say that texts between FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page constitute "treason." The bureau's defenders, meanwhile, would have the public believe that the FBI is an island of objectivity, entirely immune from political considerations and unfairly buffeted by partisans.

Each of these positions is a caricature. Of course the FBI is political—how, as a powerful institution in Washington, with a leader appointed by the president, could it not be?—but its politics are not reducible to partisan allegiance, although its ranks include Democrats and Republicans. Like most bureaucratic institutions, the FBI's primary loyalty is to its own interests, and when it intervenes in politics, that tends to be in its own service.

That reality comes through in the texts between Strzok and Page, who were reportedly in a romantic relationship. The messages show a pair of FBI employees who indeed detested Trump, but also detested many if not most Washington players in both parties and all institutions, and owed their allegiance to the bureau itself.

Parts of the texts have been previously reported, but the full logs were released by the Senate Homeland Security Committee Tuesday. The president tweeted Wednesday morning that "NEW FBI TEXTS ARE BOMBSHELLS!" In fact, the most interesting elements of the texts were long ago reported; the balance is largely banal, much of it consumed with internal politics. (Most of what goes on inside the FBI, it seems, is no more interesting than what goes on inside your office.)

Across the months of texts, Strzok and Page dismiss nearly everyone in politics who comes to their attention. Strzok complains that former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson pushes "a wildly liberal interpretation of immigration responsibilities." Page "hope[s] Paul Ryan fails and crashes in a blaze of glory" and says former top counterterrorism official Richard Clarke "is an uninformed douche." Strzok finds it "wildly offensive" that former Attorney General Eric Holder's portrait is hung next to one of Elliot Richardson, who resigned in the Saturday Night Massacre. Later, when Holder speaks at the Democratic National Convention, he urges Page, "Oh God, Holder! Turn it off turn it off turn it off!!!!" Strzok tells Page, "i LOATHE Congress." A month later, she says, "God i hate Congress. So utterly worthless." Strzok replies, "Less than worthless. Contemptible." They aren't fans of Ted Cruz. The veteran political trickster Roger Stone "is horrible," he says. At one point, the two fiercely debate Dreamers.

Among the few exceptions are Barack Obama and his family, and Joe Biden. During Michelle Obama's DNC speech, Page writes, "God, she's an incredibly impressive woman. The Obamas in general, really. While he has certainly made mistakes, I'm proud to have had him as my president." She also says, "I really really like Joe Biden." Strzok replies, "Was literally grabbing phone to say Joe's doing great!" There is praise for the centrist conservative columnists David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan, too.

Strzok and Page especially detested Trump, who they call an "utter idiot" and complain about in many texts. "Trump is a disaster. l have no idea how destabilizing his Presidency would be," Strzok says. But that doesn't translate into much affection for Hillary Clinton. Strzok calls himself a "conservative Dem," and grudgingly acknowledges in March 2016 that he'd vote for Clinton over Trump. (A colleague had him pegged as a John Kasich voter, he said.) But Strzok also says, "I'm worried about what happens if HRC is elected." He complains that a fact-checker dismissed Bernie Sanders's criticism of Clinton as too close to fossil-fuel lobbyists even though "everything Sanders said about Clinton is true … This is clear and utter bias by the media especially the NYTIMES, WAPO, and CNN who if you look at all of them have large donors for Clinton. The fact citing source they used is owed by a newspaper which publically endorsed Clinton."

Frequently, however, the targets for criticism are people and ideas that threaten the FBI. Take Tim Cook, whose Apple refused to unlock an iPhone belonging to a San Bernardino terrorist. Strzok: "What makes me really angry about that Apple thing? The fact that Tim Cook plays such the privacy advocate. Yeah, jerky, your entire OS is designed to track me without me even knowin it." Page replies, "I know. Hypocrite." An article about Edward Snowden elicits this commentary from Page: "VOM-IT.VOMIT. Vomit vomitvomit." Strzok writes, "I'm partial to any woman sending articles about how nasty the Russians are." She replies, "hate them. l think they're probably the worst. Very little I find redeeming about this. Even in history. Couple of good writers and artists I guess." They complain about transparency requirements. Strzok has little use for civil-liberties complaints from Muslims: "There's about to be an interview on NPR that l know is going to irritate me a Muslim leader who says it's not their community's job to look after itself because they're not quote law enforcement quote."

More than anything, they seem to revere the institution. A news article's "whole tone is anti bu[reau]," Strzok complains. At another time he seethes, "I made the mistake of reading some stupid NY Post about how agents are ready to revolt against D"—presumably, Director James Comey—over the Clinton investigation. "There are a bunch of really ignorant people out there blinded by their politics." Page replies, "You can't read that sh*t. And honestly, let them. The bu would be better off without them." Both of them get upset by a leak that the Department of Justice intends to accept whatever recommendation Comey makes about Hillary Clinton. It's a result of the "snafu" of Attorney General Loretta Lynch meeting with Bill Clinton on the tarmac in Phoenix, they agree, but Strzok worries, "Timing looks like hell. Will appear choreographed." He adds, "It's a shame because now it begins to tarnish even the FBl's good name. Very irritating."

Given how the texts have been used as evidence to tarnish the FBI's good name, that's one of several moments that read as sharply poignant with hindsight. In another, they discuss a New York Times article about how former CIA Director David Petraeus had bounced back from his affair while Paula Broadwell was still grappling with fallout. Three days before the election, Page texts Strzok, "the nyt probability numbers are dropping every day. I'm scared for our organization."

As it turns out, employees at the FBI had good reason to be worried about their organization in the Trump era. The president has repeatedly meddled in the bureau. Trump asked the director for personal loyalty, pressured him to end an investigation into a national-security adviser who had lied to the FBI, and then fired him, admitting that he did so because of the probe into Russian interference in the election. He pushed out a deputy director (for reasons not yet clear to the public), and has mounted a protracted campaign to undermine the leadership and independence of the Department of Justice and FBI, as Adam Serwer writes. The bureau didn't fear Trump because of his politics, but because he was a threat to the bureau.

Employees at the FBI have personal political views, obviously, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that, as long as is it doesn't affect their work. (An investigation that seeks to answer whether it affected Strzok's is ongoing.) The alternative is untenable. It's no surprise that views would range from left to right—though probably not too far left. Historically, when the bureau has waded into politics, it has often done so against Democratic politicians and left-wing groups, from trade unions to civil-rights leaders. That bent was because Republicans had, until the present moment, been deferential to the FBI, while left-wing groups were more likely to try to challenge or curtail its powers.

It's also why Democrats were so quick to see J. Edgar Hoover-style machinations in Comey's brief, 11th-hour reopening of the investigation into Clinton. But Comey was apparently acting in a disastrously miscalculated attempt to protect the bureau from politics, as a definitive New York Times piece reported last April. The director thought he could insulate the FBI, but instead managed to drag it directly into the center of the election. Later, reactions to Comey's firing from within the FBI would demonstrate the kind of esprit de corps and bureau loyalty many employees felt.

The most notable exception to the FBI's historical tendency to target Democrats and leftists is when a top FBI official helped bring down Richard Nixon. Mark Felt, then deputy director, spoke to The Washington Post about Watergate under the name Deep Throat. Felt was an old Hoover aide and had hoped to be named to the top job at the FBI; instead, it went to L. Patrick Gray. Gray later said he thought Felt had acted out of anger at missing the job. By choosing Gray instead of Hoover's man, however, Nixon had also exerted outside control over the FBI. As James Mann wrote in The Atlantic in 1992, "Although it occasionally provided a bit of clandestine help to occupants of the Oval Office, the FBI saw itself as fearlessly independent—outside politics and ultimately beyond the control of the White House."

But the FBI had gripes specific to Watergate, too. "The FBI took charge of the federal investigation at the same time that the Administration was trying to limit its scope," Mann noted. In other words, leaking to the press about the Nixon administration's misdeeds was a way to protect the bureau's prerogatives to investigate Watergate and anything else it wanted, regardless of whether Felt was acting partially out of personal pique. (Intra-bureau loyalty helps explain why hundreds of FBI employees rallied outside the court when Felt and two other FBI veterans were convicted in 1978 of conducting illegal break-ins.)

The results of Watergate were a mixed bag for the bureau. In statutory terms, with Hoover's abuses in mind, Congress in 1976 established a 10-year term for the director, and made sure the president appointed the post. But by setting a 10-year term, Congress also set the bureau somewhat aside from politics—every new president would not get a chance to install his own man (or woman), and firing a director would be unusual. Indeed, it has seldom happened since, and never on such a thin pretext as Comey's firing. That, in turn, was part of a normative shift after Watergate: Nixon's abuses established a norm of FBI independence that has gone largely unchallenged until now.

When Strzok and Page complain about Congress, about transparency requirements, and about Eric Holder, those complaints are a natural extension of the bureau's historical antagonism to anyone and anything that might interfere with the FBI conducting its work in the way it believes is appropriate.

As I have written several times in recent weeks, the FBI's history of abuses makes it a strange and ill-fitting ally for liberals who think the bureau could help stop Trump. Matt Ford demonstrates that one can be wary of the FBI's political history, and the broader abuses of the intelligence community, while still opposing the weaponization of the FBI for partisan purposes. Yet it is important to remember, as the debate over the bureau continues, that the FBI is not a neutral force, waiting to be captured by the political interests of one party or the other. It already has its own politics, which center around the protection of its own preorgatives at all costs.

The Gravity-Defying Globe of Death

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 11:51 AM PST

It's the ultimate daredevil act: The Globe of Death, a sphere made of mesh steel, in which several of the world's best dirtbike riders defy gravity in a synchronized, pedal-to-the-metal ballet. The stunt, which can be explained by the physics phenomenon of centripetal force, dates back to the early 20th century. It is extremely dangerous; even the slightest miscalculated movement can result in catastrophe for all riders in the cage.


Lucius Zafalon has broken every single bone in his body in pursuit of the perfect Globe act. Directors Pedro de la Fuente and James Worsley, who comprise the London-based production company Autobahn, met Zafalon through their mutual passion for motorcycles. "We were mesmerized by how incredibly visual the act is," the duo told The Atlantic. "We thought that, combined with his life story, was a perfect subject for a film." Their short documentary Globe of Death is a stunning glimpse into Zafalon's life, which is defined by his passion for the perilous sport.


Pyeongchang Preview: Ready for the Winter Olympics

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 09:05 PM PST

Tomorrow, the Opening Ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics will take place in Pyeongchang, South Korea, kicking off more than two weeks of winter-sports action in the Taebaek Mountains. Contractors have been finishing venues and support structures, course workers have been grooming the slopes and tracks, volunteers have been greeting international teams as they arrive, athletes have been settling in and training, and the stage is nearly set. Before the opening, a collection of images of the preparation and training in Pyeongchang over the past several weeks.

Letters: The Comments Apocalypse

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 11:28 AM PST

We Want to Hear From You

Last week, Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic's editor in chief, announced the creation of a new online Letters section, and the related decision to shut down comments on TheAtlantic.com. "We are choosing now to elevate respectful, intelligent discourse and argument," he wrote. "We want smart and critical readers to have a more visible role on our site, and we're looking forward to hearing from you, and publishing you."


I had two conflicting thoughts about the news regarding The Atlantic's decision to shutter their comments section. My first thought was, "Good, comments sections in general have proven to be a bad idea." My second thought: "God, why even have internet at work anymore?"

Michael Davisson
Temperance, Mich.


I applaud your decision, and only wish that more online publications would follow your lead. The comments sections have evidently been hijacked not only by mindless trolls but by automated and semi-automated propaganda bots as well.  They detract from your fine publication. James Fallows was right!

Luddy Harrison
San Diego, Calif.


I have enjoyed The Atlantic as a print subscriber for many years. I have read the online version for a much shorter time.

Thank you for eliminating the comments section. It got to the point that there were more cutthroat comments about other postings than there were comments about the articles themselves.

I will continue to read TheAtlantic.com and not miss all that crud that was out there.

Jim Hronek
Spring Hill, Fla.


Your choice to close the Disqus comments section of The Atlantic in favor of a letter exchange is baffling and disappointing. One cannot have the same sort of think-on-your feet, conversational interactions via a curated letters section that one can have in a comments section exchange. The lack of spontaneity and opportunity for genuine exchange of ideas constitutes a serious step back.

I have gathered over the years that purportedly right-thinking people hold comments sections in low regard, as sewers of trolling and a refuge for "-ists" of varying description. Yet for a person like me, who visits your site every day, and has made more than 15,000 comments over the years—often lengthy, sometimes even researched, rarely rude or disrespectful, and with very little concern for the prospect of trolling responses (which have little power to trouble someone who isn't looking to be upset)—I find such characterizations frustratingly ignorant. I would add that a person looking for trolling, or looking to be depressed by the lack of civility in Atlantic comments sections, will certainly find what they are looking for, but will likely ignore a wide range of thoughtful, interesting, and spontaneous exchanges going on among intelligent people (who are not infrequently relevant subject-matter experts) in the process.

As I said, I visit your website every day, read numerous articles, and comment in what I consider to be a thoughtful fashion. I have changed a few minds on a few matters here. I have had my mind changed as well. I know of others who do the same, and whose comments have the genuine power to change minds in a way that posting a smattering of hand-picked letters cannot possibly simulate or replace. I found Mr. Goldberg's reversion to lazy tropes about bigots posting here particularly dispiriting, as I consider such people to be those most in need of having their minds changed. I find that liberal orthodoxy on such matters has veered away from the desire to persuade such people that their ideas are wrong, while retaining a conviction that such people may very well be redeemed through more and better information, and I consider The Atlantic's choice in this instance a manifestation of that concerning trend. Make no mistake: Your actions will quash the opportunity for genuine debate and education for numerous people.

Tom Carroll
Chicago, Ill.         


I make it a habit to not patronize any site that doesn't have a comments section.  Your moderated letters section is no good to me. I don't want to see what you've deemed appropriate. I want unfiltered, raw, comments; in all their hateful, gory truth. How people respond to an article is just as interesting as the article itself.

Michael McElveen
Houston, Tex.


I find it very sad that you guys are removing your comments section. The section has become a great place to share ideas, discuss opinions, and meet like-minded and not-like-minded people. I truly adore the conversations and humor many users impart on the conversation. For such serious issues it is nice to see how others feel and get other perspectives for a well-rounded opinion on the issues at hand. I would consider some of the people who make comments to be friends and it will be sad to lose these connections.

Taylor Cappadona
Nashville, Tenn.


I should begin by commending you on your move to strike down the comments section and replace it with an online space for letters from readers. To many this may seem an arbitrary or even censorious change of format, but in this digital age there is much to be said for promoting simple letter-writing: with this maneuver you simultaneously deny those who would foment toxicity an easy forum for their fulminations and encourage those who have something to say to explore a medium that requires careful self-reflection.

Billy Flynn
Los Angeles, Calif.


Just read your new policy of ending comments forever.

Obviously the reason is that you are a coward terrified of the fact that people do not agree with your religion.

Fuck you.

David Nystrom
Antigo, Wis.

The World Spends $400 Billion Propping Up Oil Companies. Is That Bad?

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 12:08 PM PST

In the thrilling world of multinational industrial policy, it's about as high-stakes a fight as you can get.

Every year, the world's governments spend hundreds of billions of dollars making it cheaper to extract and burn fossil fuels. Almost as regularly, their representatives get together and beg everyone else to stop doing that. Then they go home and keep doing it themselves.

The pattern has worn on for more than two decades. Way back in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol—the first international treaty aimed at fixing global warning—called for governments to stop subsidizing all "greenhouse-gas-emitting sectors." That didn't happen, so, in 2009, the leaders of the G20 nations resolved anew to "phase out ... inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies." Three years later, President Obama declared that "a century of subsidies to the oil companies is long enough." In 2016, when G20 leaders met in China, they again "reaffirmed" the need to end subsidies.

Somehow, all those affirmations didn't get the job done. Governments are still subsidizing oil extraction today, to the tune of about $400 billion per year. And climate advocates continue issuing unheeded proposals to cut those subsidies as a way of reducing greenhouse-gas pollution.

But maybe all the rigamarole isn't worth it. A new study, published this week in the journal Nature, argues that withdrawing subsidies wouldn't have as large an effect as anticipated. In both the world's richest and poorest countries, canceling fossil-fuel subsidies would neither significantly reduce carbon-dioxide pollution nor increase the amount of investment in renewable energy between now and 2030.

Only in countries in a sort of middle tier—moderately wealthy places that export vast amounts of oil and gas, like Russia, Venezuela, or Saudi Arabia—would cutting subsidies lead to major declines in emissions.

And even on a global scale, slashing fossil-fuel subsidies would do less to help the climate than would universal adoption of the Paris Agreement on climate change, the study argues. That accord—which would only hold global warming to about 3 degrees Celsius, failing to hold off environmental devastation or dangerous sea-level rise—would nonetheless avert between four and eight gigatons of carbon-dioxide pollution every year. Killing subsidies would only prevent 0.5 to two gigatons of pollution annually.

"We're not advocating keeping subsidies. We're just advocating a more regionally differentiated discussion of them," said Jessica Jewell, an author of the paper and a political-economy researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria.

"A lot [of attention] has been focused on subsidy removal in [developed] OECD countries, whereas when you look at our results, the discussion politically should be on focusing on subsidy removal in oil- and gas-exporting regions," she told me.

This finding is, she admits, diplomatically challenging. Countries in North America and Western Europe—except for the United States—have historically pushed for a more aggressive global climate policy. But it's in the countries most resistant to reducing emissions—Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and others near them—that slashing subsidies would have the biggest effect.

The new paper provides a useful global context for arguments happening in many world capitals. Most governments spend most of their subsidy money on the consumption side—that is, they help poor and middle-class people buy fossil fuels. Cutting that support can be ethically and environmentally tricky. In India, for example, cutting the subsidies sometimes led to increases in greenhouse-gas emissions—because the country's poorest citizens, unable to afford kerosene, started burning even dirtier fuels like firewood or charcoal.

The situation isn't any simpler in rich countries. Take the debate over subsidies in the United States.

In America, it's not clear how much the public pays to cushion oil, gas, and coal companies. The Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank, estimated in 2016 that the federal government spends about $4 billion every year on tax breaks for fossil fuels. But Oil Change International, a progressive environmental group, looked at a broader set of federal and state policies last year and put the cost to taxpayers at $20.5 billion. (And even this number leaves out some subsidies, like the federal program that helps families pay their heating bills.)

No matter how you estimate them, would cutting these subsidies do any good? There, again, it also depends on whom you ask—and what assumptions they make. Gilbert Metcalf, the economist who arrived at the $4-billion figure, found that ditching the federal tax subsidies would only raise global oil prices by about 1 percent—the equivalent of at most two additional cents per every gallon of gasoline at the pump.

As such, he concluded the subsidies were a waste of money, because they didn't make gas or electricity much cheaper for Americans. Their effect on global oil prices was just too small. But by the same token, he didn't think canceling them would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, either.

A paper published last year in Nature Energy arrived at a totally different conclusion. Though it mostly agreed with Metcalf about the domestic effects of oil subsidies, it looked at how their consequences accumulated over time. (Metcalf focused on their annual effects.) Suddenly, the subsidies seemed to have a gargantuan climate footprint: By 2050, the United States will have underwritten the drilling of an extra 17 billion barrels of oil, enough to emit over 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide.

Both papers, in other words, thought America should trash its subsidies—they just had different reasons why. They also had different ideas about how the world would respond to the change. The Nature Energy paper believes that killing U.S. subsidies would decrease emissions worldwide. Metcalf argues that other countries will just fill the hole that America left in the market.

Looking at the world as a whole in her new paper, Jewell takes the same view as Metcalf. If the United States or Europe were to kill their subsidies, she argues, then an oil- or gas-exporting country would just increase their production. "When you think about it, it makes sense because we're operating on a globally liberalized market," she told me.

Therefore, she proposes that climate advocates target killing subsidies in oil-exporting nations. "These countries are already facing budgetary pressures because oil prices are low," she said. "In a place like Saudi Arabia, there's an opportunity now. For them to decrease subsidies is kind of a win-win."

Peter Erickson, a U.S.-based senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute and one of the authors of the Nature Energy paper, said "their suggestion to focus on high-income countries is a good one, and is just good policy design if one is concerned about equity or simply efficiency." But he takes issue with the idea that fossil-fuel subsidies don't hurt the climate, even in the United States.

"Their conclusion that subsidy removal could reduce global carbon-dioxide emissions by 1 to 4 percent is substantial, and underscores why subsidy removal is an important climate solution," he told me in an email. "One to 4 percent is only 'small' compared to the massive scale of the climate challenge at hand, a task that necessarily involves many complementary policy solutions."

He also thought it was silly to compare killing subsidies to the Paris treaty. The national commitments "are generally economy-wide pledges that are designed to be attained through many individual policies and actions, including (in some cases) but not at all limited to subsidy removal," he said.

Or maybe all the numbers are way too small. The International Monetary Fund calculates that fossil-fuel subsidies cost the world about $5.3 trillion in 2015—a number 13 times the size of Jewell's $400 billion estimate and equal to about 6.5 percent of annual world economic output. But that study takes an especially magnanimous view of subsidies, including the global burden of air pollution and the future cost of climate change as well as the cost of specific government programs. "If you use that number, you get a totally different result," Jewell said. "You get something totally different from what we got."

They ignored that estimate for a reason. Jewell and her colleagues chose to calculate only the policies that governments already have in place—like tax breaks or drilling subsidies—and not include every possible cost to the public.

Ultimately, Jewell say her study should prompt environmental groups to be pickier about the kind of political fights they seek.

"A lot of the advocacy is coming not from governments, but from nongovernmental organizations, and there's not a focus on this regional differentiation. It's just a global message of subsidy removal for everyone," she said. "Climate advocacy occurs at different levels, and climate advocates of course have to evaluate what makes sense for their context."

"But what kind of political animal are you going up against?" she asked. By focusing on all subsidies everywhere, advocates may be stumbling into disaster—unintentionally targeting "a poor person who will wind up on the cover of a magazine because they can't afford heating oil."

A Language's Popularity Could Influence Its Grammar and Vocabulary

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 10:17 AM PST

It's a peculiar observation that the more people speak a language, the simpler its grammar tends to be. English and Mandarin, for instance, have notably straightforward structures. On the other hand, languages spoken in just a single mountain valley or village can have gorgeously intricate grammars, full of gender and cases and declensions. They also tend to have rather small vocabularies. Meanwhile, the vocabularies of widely spoken languages are enormous.

What is going on here? What connection might there be between how many people speak a language and what it is like?

There are many things that could be at play, from the level of historical trends all the way down to how parents speak to their children. It also isn't exactly clear which comes first: lots of speakers, or simple grammar? Still, the researchers behind one recent paper wondered whether the fact that grammar is relatively hard to learn and new words relatively easy might be enough to explain this trend, at least in broad strokes. They built a mathematical model in which individuals in small and large social networks have conversations and occasionally learn new words or ways of saying something from each other. What the team found was that even in this simple, stick-figure version of the world, the same patterns emerge. The results suggest that these general rules, along with the number of speakers, can influence how a language grows and changes.

When it comes to learning a new language, grasping unfamiliar words is not the hardest part. Practice with flash cards, or keep your ears open, and you'll pick things up fairly quickly. But for most people, grammar takes a longer time. "We know from studies of second-language learning that if you have to learn a language with complex morphology, that is really hard for ... learners to pick up," says Morten Christiansen, a cognitive scientist at Cornell University who is an author of the paper. If your first language doesn't flag tables as feminine, or group nouns into clusters according to shape, it is going to take a little while for you to learn to do it in your second. Even in first languages, learning grammar takes a while.

In the model, the researchers represented this with some hard-to-learn linguistic changes, standing in for grammar. Words were represented by easy-to-learn ones. With an "easy" innovation, others only had to hear it once before they too would start using it. With a "hard" one, an individual had to hear it twice before adopting it. Then the researchers ran their model again and again, watching to see how things played out in social networks ranging from 30 to 500 hypothetical people.

As these innovations spread, it became clear that indeed, in large groups, new words spread quickly. There were more individuals to coin them, too, generating a lot of new vocabulary. In contrast, innovations in grammar spread slowly, as people might not have a second meeting for quite a while.

Meanwhile, in small groups, because the individuals were more likely to reencounter each other frequently, grammar innovations took root much more easily. "If somebody has come up with a hard-to-learn convention, you're more likely to come across it more frequently in your lifetime and learn it," Christiansen says. New words were fewer than in large groups, stemming simply from the fact that there were not so many people.

This suggests that the number of people who speak a language may shape it in ways they don't realize. Furthermore, the model could apply to other aspects of culture that are easy or hard to transmit to other people, like dance, or music, or rituals, Christiansen notes. Small groups might generate very complex, perhaps self-referential or internally consistent, styles that become more standardized when larger numbers of people adopt them. "Gradually, as it becomes more popular ... it becomes easier for more people to pick it up," Christiansen says. "But it also becomes simpler in nature."

The Weirdest—and Possibly Best—Proposal to Resolve the North Korea Crisis

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 10:07 AM PST

"Washington has a long habit of painting its enemies 10 feet tall—and crazy," as Fareed Zakaria once noted. Thus, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster in December called North Korea's nuclear-weapons program—which according to American intelligence still probably lacks the capacity to hit the U.S. mainland with a nuclear weapon—"the most destabilizing development, I think, in the post-World War II period." More destabilizing, evidently, than Stalin or Mao's far larger nuclear arsenals; or the break-up of the British, French, and Soviet empires; or the rise of China; or a changing climate that could soon make major cities uninhabitable. If Pyongyang's nuclear program is allowed to proceed, McMaster continued, North Korea—whose GDP is one-50th the size of South Korea's and which spends one-fifth as much on its military—might "reunify the [Korean] peninsula under the red banner."

Depicting North Korea's nuclear program as an expression of its geopolitical might is exactly wrong. The program is actually a result of the North's extraordinary weakness. Which is why the Trump administration's strategy of threatening Pyongyang with war—and making it feel even more imperiled—is exactly the wrong way to curb its nuclear program. Kim Jong Un possesses nuclear weapons, above all, to deter an American attack. Thus, the best way to limit his arsenal is to help him deter such an attack without nukes. That's the rationale behind Naval War College Professor Lyle Goldstein's wildly counterintuitive, and oddly compelling, proposal: The United States should ask China and Russia to deploy troops on North Korean soil.

To understand Goldstein's reasoning, it's necessary to grasp how North Korea's increasing weakness has propelled its nuclear program. The Stanford political scientist Scott Sagan has observed that "most international relations scholars have a clear and simple answer" to why countries develop nuclear weapons. They do so "when they face a significant military threat to their security that cannot be met through alternative means." Over the last half-century, the military threats to North Korea have swelled while its alternative means of protecting itself have withered. Thus, Pyongyang's obsessive pursuit of nukes.

First, consider the shifting balance of power between Pyongyang and Seoul. North Korea has long had a smaller population than South Korea. But until the early 1970s, the two countries had roughly the same per capita GDP. Today, South Korea's is roughly 23 times higher. Ninety-two percent of South Korea's roads are paved. In the North, it's 3 percent. The average South Korean lives more than a decade longer than her North Korean counterpart, and is between one and three inches taller.

North Korea has tried to keep pace militarily by devoting as much as one-quarter of its GDP to defense. And it does have more men under arms than the South does. But the technological gap between the two nations' militaries has grown more and more extreme. North Korea's most common fighter plane was unveiled in 1953. The South, according to a 2011 Center for Strategic and International Studies report, has "achieved a massive lead in modern aircraft and surface-to-air missiles." The same pattern holds true on land. North Korea, notes Goldstein, has "tanks from the 1950s and it doesn't have gas for those tanks and it can't feed the soldiers who man them."

But this is only part of the story. North Korea hasn't only grown weaker vis-á-vis South Korea, it's grown weaker vis-á-vis the great powers as well. During the Cold War, North and South Korea each had important patrons, which fought alongside them during the Korean War. Then, in 1991, the North's most powerful ally, the Soviet Union, collapsed. Its successor state, Russia, annulled its mutual-assistance treaty with Pyongyang and opened diplomatic relations with Seoul. By 1992, the Russian and South Korean navies were visiting each other's ports.

At around the same time, North Korea's other major ally, China, began cozying up to South Korea too, and trade between the two nations quickly surpassed trade between Beijing and Pyongyang. (South Korea is now China's fourth-largest trading partner. North Korea is not in the top 15.) China's relationship with North Korea, by contrast, grew increasingly chilly. In his book, No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security, Jonathan Pollack notes that North Korea's founding leader, Kim Il Sung, visited China every year. His successor, Kim Jong Il, who took power in 1994, didn't visit until 2000.   

All this would have been more bearable for Pyongyang had it improved its relationship with Seoul's Cold War ally, the United States. But that didn't happen. Nor did North Korea's relationship improve with Japan. Instead, the United States—newly confident that dictatorships were on their way out across the globe—waited expectantly for North Korea to go the way of East Germany. Pyongyang found it particularly unnerving that the U.S. continued its annual military exercises with South Korea even after the Cold War's end. A congressman who met Kim Il Sung in 1993 reported that when discussing the U.S.-South Korean war games, the North Korean leader's voice "quivered and his hands shook with anger."

"It is perhaps still hard for most people to appreciate how profound the North Koreans' sense of crisis was" as a result of these tectonic shifts, writes Fu Ying, the chairwoman of the Academic Committee of the National Institute of Global Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. North Korea began its nuclear program, under Soviet tutelage, in the 1950s. But it's unlikely Moscow wanted Pyongyang to actually develop a bomb, and had the USSR stuck around, North Korea would have had less desire to. "The events of the early 1990s deeply upset North Korea and led to its decision to go its own way," writes Fu, "including by making the "'nuclear choice.'" In 1990, American satellites captured evidence that the North had constructed a secret nuclear facility at Yongbyon.

Since then, North Korea's geopolitical position has only grown worse. As a result of the 1994 Agreed Framework—which shut down Yongbyon—the Clinton administration in 2000 pledged that it had no "hostile intent" towards Pyongyang. But both North Korea and the United States violated the agreement, and when the Bush administration took power, it refused to reaffirm America's lack of hostile intent. To the contrary, George W. Bush labelled North Korea a member of the "axis of evil," and then invaded Iraq. Undersecretary of State John Bolton instructed Pyongyang to "draw the appropriate lesson."

North Korea has since watched America topple yet another dictator who lacked nuclear weapons: Muammar Qaddafi. It's seen the U.S. practice "decapitation raids" against its own regime. It's watched Donald Trump declare, in response to a question about assassinating Kim Jong Un, that "I've heard of worse things." And it's seen the Trump administration both threaten, and mobilize for, war.

It's also watched China, its last ally, tilt even more heavily toward Seoul. Since he became China's leader in 2012, Xi Jinping has met his South Korean counterparts seven times. He hasn't met Kim Jong Un once. Beijing has backed sanctions against the North at the United Nations. Chinese officials have even declared that they no longer feel bound to defend Pyongyang under the Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty that the two countries signed in 1961.

When it comes to security, in other words, North Korea sees nukes as just about all it has left.

The problem with North Korea's nuclear weapons is not that Kim Jong Un plans to use them. He has shown no inclination toward suicide. It's that he runs a cloistered, paranoid regime, which lacks good channels of communication with a White House that is fairly cloistered and paranoid itself. There's also the danger that North Korea might grow so economically desperate that it sells some of its nuclear technology to actors even worse than itself.  

But if you want North Korea to abandon, or even limit, its nuclear arsenal, you must convince its leaders that they can do so and still survive. That's especially difficult after the Libya intervention, since Kim watched Qaddafi abandon his nuclear program as part of a rapprochement with America, only to be later toppled by America anyway. At this point, the promises of non-belligerence that Clinton offered in 2000—even accompanied by a halt to U.S.-South Korean military exercises—aren't likely to be enough.

Which is why American policymakers need to think more boldly. Rajan Menon of The City College of New York has suggested promising North Korea that if it abandons its nukes, U.S. troops will leave South Korea. But—in addition to weakening America's position in Asia—an American withdrawal might tempt Seoul, and perhaps Tokyo, to develop their own nuclear weapons. Which would leave the North just as vulnerable as it is now, and make it cling just as hard to its nukes.

Lyle Goldstein's idea—which he mentions briefly in his 2015 book, Meeting China Halfway, and has elaborated on since—is different. Instead of U.S. troops leaving the South, small numbers of Chinese and perhaps Russian troops would, with Pyongyang's permission, deploy in the North.

There's little chance these forces would embolden Kim Jong Un. To the contrary, they would likely restrain him, since China and Russia both value their relationship with Seoul. But the deployments would make an American or South Korean attack on the North almost impossible. Even the Trump administration—which is frighteningly willing to contemplate war with Pyongyang—is unlikely to risk killing Chinese and Russian troops and thus provoking war with Moscow and Beijing. Thus, Kim Jong Un might gain the security to begin curbing, and perhaps even eventually scrapping, his nuclear program. He'd also gain prestige. Receiving Chinese and Russian troops would constitute a major stature boost for a leader who right now can't get a meeting with Xi Jinping.

There are plenty of reasons to believe this won't happen. Pyongyang might fear that allowing in Chinese troops would threaten its sovereignty. Perhaps those troops would even take part in a coup. For its part, China doesn't like stationing troops abroad. (Russia has fewer compunctions.) On the other hand, from a Chinese perspective, war between North and South Korea—followed by either chaos or a peninsula unified under American auspices—would be even worse.

Then there's Washington, where Goldstein's proposal turns conventional foreign-policy thinking upside down. Americans generally assume that the greater America's military advantage in a given area, the safer America is. To suggest that America might enhance its security by welcoming Chinese and Russian troops back to the Korean Peninsula—at the very moment the Trump announces a new era of great power-competition—is head-spinningly contrarian. So is the notion that America might support propping up a regime that Trump has, rightly, called evil.

But radical asymmetries of power haven't always served America well in the post-Cold War era. They didn't serve America well when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, two other countries orphaned by the demise of their former Soviet sponsor. And they don't serve America well when they accelerate North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Moreover, Russian and Chinese deployments might not prolong the North Korean regime. They might instead lower tensions, which would permit closer ties between Seoul and Pyongyang, and let South Korea's economic and cultural appeal eat away at North Korean totalitarianism from within. It's worth remembering that the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which at the time appeared to affirm the Cold War division of Europe, ended up undermining it by empowering dissidents in the East. There's no guarantee, of course. But if the last 25 years of American sanctions and military maneuvers were designed to liberate the North Korean people, they've been a dismal failure.

It says something about the foreign-policy debate in Washington that Goldstein's proposal is probably too radical to receive a serious hearing while the proposal McMaster and Trump keep floating—a "bloody nose" strike that could spark a war that kills millions in Seoul alone—is considered a legitimate subject of debate. Maybe it's not our adversaries who are crazy. Maybe it's us.

Why Didn’t the White House See Domestic Violence as Disqualifying?

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 10:44 AM PST

On New Year's Day, 1996, future Trump campaign chair Steve Bannon was charged with three misdemeanor counts of domestic violence by the Santa Monica police. The charges were eventually dropped when his then-wife did not appear at the trial. On the day that she called the police to her house, however, she told them that at the beginning of their relationship, there had been "3-4 arguments that became physical," according to the police report. They had gone to counseling, though, and she told police that there had "not been any physical abuse in their arguments for about the past four years"—until the violent altercation that day.

Bannon's predecessor at the Trump campaign also faced criminal charges for violence against a woman. Corey Lewandowski was arrested in Florida on March 29, 2017, on misdemeanor battery charges. On March 8, Lewandowski had grabbed and pulled aside a reporter, Michelle Fields. Fields photographed and tweeted the bruises on her arm. Lewandowski denied that he touched Fields until contradicted by video evidence. The state attorney ultimately decided that there was not enough evidence to pursue criminal charges, and dropped the case.

President Trump himself has been the target of allegations of violence against the women in his life, most notably his first wife Ivana. During their 1990 divorce, Ivana swore in a deposition that Trump—in a rage about an unexpectedly painful scalp-reduction surgery performed by a surgeon she had recommended—had yanked a handful of her hair from her head and forced himself upon her sexually. The deposition further claimed that she spent the night locked in a bathroom weeping. The next morning, Trump asked her, "with menacing casualness, 'Does it hurt?'" A copy of the deposition was obtained by a Trump biographer and quoted in a 1993 book. (The book would later be amended with a statement by Ivana, after the divorce settlement, acknowledging that in her deposition, "I referred to this as a 'rape,' but I do not want my words to be interpreted in a literal or criminal sense.")

So there is some context as to how it could happen that the Trump White House could decide to overlook an FBI report that two ex-wives of a senior staffer had alleged he had a history of domestic battery. White House staff secretary is a crucially important job. The staff secretary controls the White House document flow, determining much of what the president sees and does not see. The job is powerful, and has conferred power on many of those who have held it: Jon Huntsman Sr. under President Nixon; Richard Darman under President Reagan; John Podesta under President Clinton; and Harriet Miers and future appeals judge Brett Kavanaugh under President George W. Bush.

It's a fascinating question why the Trump White House would not regard domestic violence as a cause for concern for the holder of this office, and not only as a matter of decency and established precedent. As long ago as the Reagan administration, a senior official at the Securities and Exchange Commission was compelled to resign after a divorce proceeding revealed his history of domestic violence.

Violence at home indicates a dangerous temperament for a high official, including vulnerability to blackmail. Few targets for blackmail could be more attractive than the person across whose desk flow so many of the secrets of the presidency—and who can do so much to guide or blind the president's view of the world. Yet it's also easy to understand why a White House and campaign team so prone themselves to violence against women would shrug off the FBI's information about Rob Porter as nothing so very serious, and certainly not disqualifying. We are very forgiving of sins we have committed ourselves or can imagine ourselves committing.

Trump excused his "grab them by the pussy" comment as "locker-room talk." In fact, the way we talk reveals the way we think. This president sent a message to the people around him about what is permitted, or at any rate, what is forgivable. Is it any surprise that they heard his message—and complied?

How a Nazi Made the Ballot in Illinois

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 05:59 PM PST

The Holocaust denier who is running unopposed in the Illinois Republican primary for U.S. Congress doesn't describe himself as a Nazi. His party, however, does.

Arthur Jones now prefers the term "white racialist," he told The Atlantic—and even if he loses in November, his ability to share his extremist views has already been buoyed by a series of dramatic failures that led him to the ballot in the first place, from a state party unable to recruit an alternative candidate in a highly partisan district, to voters signing ballot-access petitions without paying much attention.

In an interview, Jones said he believes that white people are more intelligent than black people. Two of his primary political goals include ending America's wars in the Middle East, which he says primarily serve the interests of Israel, and cracking down on so-called sanctuary cities. "I will work with the [Ku Klux] Klan, with socialists—I exclude communists of course—any patriotic organization that is in general agreement with my beliefs and principles," he said.

Jones, a health-insurance agent living in Lyons, Illinois, spent eight years as a member of the National Socialist White People's Party—previously known as the American Nazi Party—and has been active with the America First Committee since the 1980s. Illinois's third congressional district, which encompasses part of Cook County, has been represented by Democrat Dan Lipinski since 2005 (and by his father, Bill Lipinski, before that). Jones has run unsuccessfully in the primary for the district six times since 1998.

He makes no secret of his views. The Anti-Defamation League has flagged him as a "longtime neo-Nazi." His campaign website features sections including "News" and "Contribute" and "Holocaust?" He told me that he was disappointed in President Trump for appointing so many Jewish people to his Cabinet. (Plus, he said, "there's a whole layer of other Jews that you don't see that actually make the policy.")

The state GOP has offered a full-throated condemnation of Jones's candidacy. "The Illinois Republican Party and our country have no place for Nazis like Arthur Jones," said Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider in a statement. "We strongly oppose his racist views and his candidacy for any public office, including the 3rd Congressional District." The state's Republican National Committee members, Demetra DeMonte and Richard Porter, declined to comment on Jones's candidacy.

This is the closest Jones has gotten to elected office. When he ran in 1998, the Cook County Republican Central Committee denounced his candidacy, saying it would be a "national embarrassment" if he was nominated. That year, the GOP nominated Robert Marshall for the seat—who once called drunk driving a "grossly overblown" problem and began a League of Men Voters to advocate for fathers in custody battles. (Marshall lost.) Most recently, Jones filed to run in the 2016 Republican primary, but the Illinois State Election Board threw out his petition in response to a GOP challenge, citing invalid signatures.

This year, the 70-year-old Jones went door to door gathering more than 800 petition signatures himself. He told me that when he introduced himself to voters, he stressed his foreign-policy views, rather than his thoughts on race. He was the only Republican to turn in the paperwork by the December filing deadline. So Jones's name will be the only one on the Republican primary ballot on March 10, as the deadline for entering the race—even as a write-in candidate—has passed.

Of course, even if Jones wins the nomination, it's not likely that he'll win the seat: While Illinois's third district is relatively conservative on social issues, its voters have elected Democrats to Congress in 24 of the last 25 elections and chosen the Democratic candidate in the last four presidential elections. Even so, the fact remains that the GOP nominee for a U.S. House race will almost certainly be a former Nazi who told me he believes "all men aren't created equal." It's the "national embarrassment" the GOP feared, and compounds the electoral challenges for a party whose leader just six months ago said there were "some very fine people" among a group of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia—and who continues to face accusations of racism after he reportedly referred to African nations as "shithole countries."

So why, if Jones is so widely disliked, wasn't the local Republican Party prepared to head him off with a candidate of its own? Republicans, said Christopher Mooney, the W. Russell Arrington Professor of State Politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, should have been able to scrounge up at least one loyal party member to gather the necessary signatures and get on the ballot. "You're always gonna get a body," Mooney said. "Here we've got a Nazi body. Anytime you've got a Nazi running, somebody was asleep at the switch."

But the same thing happened in 2016: Even after getting Jones disqualified from the race, Republicans still didn't manage to put a candidate on the ballot. Lipinski ran unopposed. Asked to explain the lapses, the Illinois GOP blamed a lack of interest. "There was just no other candidate who was willing to run," said state party spokesman Aaron DeGroot, citing Democratic gerrymandering as the main reason for that. While it's true that Illinois's congressional districts were drawn to the benefit of Democrats, the Chicagoland area is generally so liberal that most races wouldn't be competitive no matter how you sliced them.

That consistent Democratic advantage has "demoralized" Republicans in the area, Mooney said, and it's likely that conservatives in the third district are feeling even more disheartened this year than normal. Illinois's Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, is one of the least popular governors in the country, and progressives are promising that a political reckoning has finally come to the third district: Bernie Sanders won the district in the presidential primary, and Lipinski, a conservative Democrat, is being challenged by a more progressive member of his own party.

All of that, coupled with Trump's historically low approval ratings, has national GOP prospects looking bleak, and made candidate recruitment harder. Generally speaking, "Republicans are hunkering down," said Mooney. "They see the clouds on the horizon."

And just as the Illinois Republicans failed to find a challenger for Jones, another safeguard of the political system seems to have broken down, as well: The state's ballot-access guidelines, which Mooney told me are intended to "limit the fringe element from cluttering up the ballot," required Jones to get the signatures of 603 registered voters. I spoke with multiple people who signed Jones's petition, and they were shocked to learn they had supported the candidacy of a former Nazi. "I probably just signed it because he asked me to," said 63-year-old Linda Florczak-Wieser of LaGrange when I called her on Wednesday. Another voter from nearby Worth said she didn't even recall signing the petition in the first place. And when I asked 93-year-old Alice Brunell how she felt about Jones's views, the Bridgeview resident replied incredulously, "I didn't know that!"

How the Olympics Got Disneyfied

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 11:54 AM PST

Editor’s Note: Find all of The Atlantic's Winter Olympics 2018 coverage here.

On Friday in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the Winter Olympics will officially kick off in a frenzy of K-pop and designer costumes, with a glitzy opening ceremony held in a roofless and potentially frigid $100 million stadium that will be used precisely four times before it is knocked down. It is the latest iteration of the kind of financial and cultural excess we've come to expect from a contemporary sporting spectacle populated largely with professional athletes instead of amateurs; it is also, perhaps not surprisingly, a notion born in America, at a remote ski resort in the Sierra Nevada mountains that managed to host the first truly ostentatious Olympics. Those Winter Games were held in 1960, in Squaw Valley, California, and, not coincidentally, their template of opulence sprang from a naked marketing ploy.

The story of Squaw Valley—and, one might say, the story of every over-the-top Olympic moment since then—begins with a silver-tongued entrepreneur named Alexander Cushing. In 1954, a few short years after he had abandoned his law career to take over an oft-impassable ski slope in Squaw Valley that was routinely bombarded by the elements, Cushing came across a brief newspaper article about nearby Reno's bid to secure the 1960 Winter Olympics. Cushing was wealthy and well-connected, and he immediately began calling in favors: to the sports editor of the San Francisco Examiner, which published a prominent story claiming that Cushing's resort would also make a concerted push for the Games; and then to a state senator, Harold "Bizz" Johnson, who used the Examiner article to convince the governor of California, Goodwin Knight, to help secure $1 million in taxpayer money for Squaw Valley's bid.

Within weeks, Cushing somehow found himself presenting the case for Squaw Valley to the United States Olympic Committee. The whole thing felt like such a ridiculous gambit that not even Cushing himself—who later admitted to a Time interviewer that he hatched the whole idea to publicize his struggling operation and had "no more interest in getting the Games than the man in the moon"—believed it was actually possible. Squaw Valley's amenities were spartan, and Cushing's property was subject to avalanches and floods; at one point, the lodge burnt to the ground. And yet Cushing was also a first-rate promoter, and he framed his pitch to the committee around Squaw Valley's roughly 450 inches of yearly snowfall.

When the USOC chose Squaw Valley over Reno (which it rejected for a "lack of morals") as its candidate for the 1960 Games, the president of the International Olympic Committee, an American named Avery Brundage, was incredulous. Brundage declared that the USOC, in promoting these "picnic grounds" for the Olympics, "obviously has taken leave of their senses." And yet the country rallied around Squaw Valley; President Eisenhower even signed a Congressional Resolution of Support. Cushing promised the IOC in his official proposal that his Olympics would be modest and economical and would offer athletes a meeting place replete with "privacy and dignity." Squaw Valley would, he said, serve as a gateway for the world to familiarize themselves with western North America, which at that point had never hosted a Winter Olympics. Cushing also appealed, in part, to lingering good will among European IOC delegates toward the American intervention in World War II. And his strategy worked: Thanks to Cushing's charm and salesmanship, Squaw Valley beat out Innsbruck, Austria, by two votes.

What transpired, five years later, was both far bigger than Cushing could have envisioned, and far more influential. Buoyed by emerging technology, televised live to Americans for the first time ever, and overseen by Walt Disney himself, the Squaw Valley Games were glitzy and star-studded and futuristic. They were also the first Winter Olympics to embrace the concept of an Olympic Village, where athletes bunked up to four to a room, challenged each other to games of ping-pong, danced in jitterbug contests, and watched free screenings of films. Disney paraded a series of Hollywood luminaries to northern California to entertain the athletes and participate in carefully choreographed opening and closing ceremonies; Bing Crosby and Roy Rogers made appearances, Danny Kaye performed, and Marlene Dietrich posed for a photo with the German hockey team.

"They had all of the folks coming up from Hollywood," Penny Pitou, an American skier who won a silver medal in the women's downhill in 1960, told me. "All I remember is that there was something going on every night."

Pitou also competed in the 1956 Olympics in Italy; video shows that the opening ceremony at those Games was a simple and unadorned parade of athletes. Pitou stayed in a hotel that year with her teammates, and because she couldn't afford to make a long-distance call to her parents in New Hampshire, they didn't find out about her results until they read the newspaper a day later. But in 1960 the athletes were centralized, and the Games were on network television, and everything got bigger in order to accommodate and captivate a worldwide audience. Those 11 days in Squaw Valley proved an ambitious melding of money and star power that forever altered the paradigm, elevating a sporting event into a spectacle—and helping to gradually push the Olympics, over the course of the following decades, from an amateur affair into a professional pursuit. Hatched from Cushing's entrepreneurial gambit, those Games wound up setting the standard, for better and for worse, for every Olympics that came after.

* * *

Cushing's love affair with Squaw Valley had begun almost entirely by chance. In an interview with the writer Seamus O'Coughlin for his book Squaw Valley Gold: American Hockey's Olympic Odyssey, Cushing detailed a post-war ski trip north of Montreal in 1946 with his wife and another couple. That excursion turned up nothing but slush on the mountain, so they boarded a train out West, having heard tales of California's "Sugar Bowl." Cushing broke his ankle on the first day, but was soon led by an airline pilot named Wayne Poulsen to the 8,900-foot Squaw Peak. "Here's a life you'll never do, Cushing," he said to himself. But recognizing he needed a change from the tedium of his law career, Cushing did decide to do that life—and eventually, in partnership with Poulsen (whom he later helped oust from the board of directors), he invested in the property.

Conventional wisdom at the time dictated you should never build a ski run in a place like Squaw Valley, which was located on the eastern side of a mountain and more prone to avalanches due to the wind direction, but Cushing tried it anyway. When it opened on Thanksgiving Day in 1949, Squaw Valley had one double chairlift, two rope tows, and a partially completed lodge with a single working toilet and no running water. His daughter broke her leg that first night, a guest ran over one of the family dogs, and the lodge flooded four days after its opening, O'Coughlin writes. Avalanches knocked down the chair-lift towers three times in the first five years, and the bridge to the lodge washed out twice. (When a guest tried to skip out on his bill, Cushing had him tied to a tree until the sheriff arrived.) And yet by offering prime skiing conditions and lively jazz sets at the lodge, Cushing managed to attract visitors to a spot so obscure that one IOC delegate, during Cushing's presentation, suggested it might not exist at all.

"Everything about the place is ideal for an Olympics," wrote the Los Angeles sportswriter Melvin Durslag, upon touring the property, "except for the trivial fact there isn't a darned thing there."

Cushing initially estimated that he could pull the whole thing off on a $1 million budget. As with much of what he told the IOC, it was utter hyperbole: The final price tag was around $20 million, according to The Wall Street Journal. Cushing gave way to more powerful bureaucrats once the bid was secured, and then the president of the organizing committee, Prentis Hale, landed perhaps the most important asset of all: He convinced Walt Disney to chair the Pageantry Committee.

In the wake of Disneyland's opening and the debut of The Mickey Mouse Club in 1955, Disney had become an entrepreneurial force. His participation—combined with the fact that CBS had spent $50,000 for the rights to televise the events live in the U.S. for the first time—helped transform the Olympics from a "pure" sporting event, at least according to the Games' high-minded amateur ideal, into something far more expansive, and something more driven by both bureaucratic and corporate interests. (David Antonucci, a Lake Tahoe historian and the author of Snowball's Chance, a book about the 1960 Games, points out that even the visitor's guide for Squaw Valley was packed with advertising, and notes that this may have been yet another symbol that the Olympics were slowly outgrowing their amateur ethic.) The opening and closing ceremonies blossomed into unprecedented tableaus, wrote the Disney historian Michael Crawford: Roughly 3,700 high-school musicians performed at the opening ceremony, 2,000 doves and 30,000 balloons were released, fireworks exploded in the skies, then–Vice President Richard Nixon (who was delayed for an hour by a massive snowstorm) delivered a speech, and the actor Karl Malden narrated a prayer. A symphonic carillon played music throughout the venue three times a day. Statues sculpted out of snow were placed throughout the venue, and two larger statues were created to flank a "Tower of Nations." While past Olympics had embraced pageantry and symbolism, this was the first time they'd truly gone Hollywood; the IOC's chancellor, Otto Mayer, reportedly openly worried whether the Games might turn into another Disneyland.

"A lot of the Europeans became skeptical when they heard about Disney's plans," Antonucci told me. "They would say, 'What's this got to do with athletic competition?' They had in their mind that the Olympics were a low-key thing."

Inside the Olympic Village—constructed largely out of necessity because Squaw Valley didn't have any nearby hotels for athletes to stay in—competitors like Pitou (who was dating the Austrian skier Egon Zimmermann) were able to relax free from fans and media, and mingle with Hollywood stars, not to mention Nixon, who wandered into the Village's cafeteria after Pitou placed second in the women's downhill, becoming the first American to medal in the  event. "I've come here to tell you how sorry I am that you lost today," Pitou recalls Nixon saying.

The Village itself was a modest barracks, but the entirety of the Squaw Valley operation extended far beyond the athletes themselves. Driven by television and Disney's powerful presence, it became a technological wonderland, an often-gratuitous display of post-war American ingenuity that seems to have foreshadowed the opening of Disney's Epcot Center more than two decades later. A $500,000 data processing center, Antonucci writes, housed an IBM mainframe computer operated by 26 employees that provided instantly updated results; for the first time, the outdoor speed-skating events were contested on artificial ice, and a futuristic machine known as a Zamboni was used to smooth that ice. The Navy constructed a 9,000-vehicle temporary parking lot out of a frozen composite of sawdust and ice. A powered tiller, invented on the spot, was used to groom the cross-country skiing course; an electronic timing system backed up the traditional hand-timers. Because the Games were televised, instant replay was used for the first time by officials to determine whether a slalom skier had cleared a gate. And because the Games were televised, the Americans who were successful graduated into a new level of fame.

But that network spotlight also meant the Olympics became more fraught, and more conflicted, largely because they became a far more valuable commodity. Because this was the first Winter Olympics where the majority of the infrastructure was constructed specifically for the Olympics, it led to cost overruns. And some journalists began to focus on those ostentatious Disney-esque touches in their coverage of Squaw Valley—the release of those 2,000 doves at the opening ceremony, for instance—as an example of how the Olympics had sold their soul. A headline in The Nation referred to the Games as the "Squaw Valley Snow Job." The Wall Street Journal reported soon after the Games that the state of California was losing $200,000 merely in maintaining Squaw Valley as a park.

"The cost of the whole show came to less than $2,000,000 a day for the whole 11 days," wrote The New York Times' Gladwin Hill in a caustic post-Games epistolary targeted at the organizers of future Olympics. "That's not bad for a chance to show the world that your athletes are second only to the Russians."

Cushing's successful boondoggle led other countries and governments to realize that they could accomplish the same thing. The Olympics could now showcase an otherwise overlooked area of the country to a national (and international) television audience; after Squaw Valley, ski resorts in the West began to proliferate, and Tahoe, long a favored summer locale, generated a whole winter economy around the resulting publicity (including at Squaw Valley, which grew to become one of the largest ski resorts in the U.S. by the time of Cushing's death in 2006). Russia spent $50 billion on the Sochi Olympics in 2014 and essentially created a destination spot in the middle of nowhere. Cost overruns and ostentatious spending are now the norm: The opening ceremony alone at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver cost $38 million, and NBC paid nearly a billion dollars for the rights to broadcast the Games in South Korea. While Pyeongchang's price tag is relatively modest compared to Sochi, the cost overruns still totaled nearly $5 billion, according to the Associated Press. And local officials still aren't entirely sure what they're going to do with some of the facilities built expressly for the Games.

Squaw Valley was not the first time Olympic organizers had to reckon with the attractions of spectacle, but the idealistic proclamations of men like Otto Mayer—"This hoopla has little to do with the Olympic spirit," he sniffed, according to Antonucci's book—seemed increasingly quaint in its aftermath. And those proclamations are nonexistent in the modern era (particularly since the U.S.'s Dream Team, made up of NBA players, essentially obliterated the notion of amateurism in 1992). According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Oxford, the average cost overrun for the Olympics since 1960 is 156 percent. At least some of this is due to the opulent standard that Squaw Valley set. "Disney brought this element of elaborate pageantry to the Olympics that had previously not existed," Antonucci told me, and more than 50 years after Squaw Valley, that's what the viewing audience has come to expect from the Games: The competition is merely one element of the show.

How Extinction Shaped the Australian Outback

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 09:55 AM PST

Daniel Pauly, a fisheries scientist, coined the term "shifting baselines" in 1995 to describe how depleted fish populations came to be considered normal by generations that had never experienced the teeming abundance their grandparents had known.

The concept is now a fundamental one in conservation. As ecosystems change and as human memory dims, former states are forgotten and newer, altered states come to be considered the baseline against which change should be measured and to which restoration should aim. This can mean that, for example, one generation insists that a park "should be" a dense forest because that is how it appeared in their youth—thanks to the fact that elephants had been driven locally extinct. (Elephants browse ferociously and even knock over full-grown trees, keeping landscapes in savannah mode.)

Now a new paper looks at shifting baselines in the Australian outback, where ants have long been thought to be the primary way seeds move around the landscape. Turns out that the role of small, adorable mammals in seed moving may have been overlooked because these creatures have been hit so hard by introduced predators, including cats and foxes.

I was excited to see the study published, because years ago I visited the field site where the work was done—Scotia Sanctuary, a conservation reserve run by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy in southwest New South Wales.

Scotia has fences to keep out cats and foxes. As a result, rare native species thrive inside, including the bridled nail-tail wallaby (Onychogalea fraenata); the numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus), a striped creature of great beauty; the greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis), something like a needle-nosed bunny; and the woylie (Bettongia penicillata ogilbyi), also known quite aptly as the rat-kangaroo.

Charlotte Mills and Mike Letnic, of the University of New South Wales at Sydney, set out trays of seeds of two local shrub species, Acacia ligulata and Dodonaea viscosa angustissima. The acacia seeds feature elaiosomes—tasty little nubbins of food appealing to ants on the outsides of the seeds. Ants pick up the whole seed, take it to their nests, eat off the elaiosome, and then discard the seed, often in a trash heap of ant poop and other debris that makes ideal compost. Some seed trays were fenced so the mammals could not access them. Others were ringed with insecticide to keep ants away.

When they went back to check the trays, the researchers found that woylies had removed both types of seeds from the trays ants could not reach year-round, while ants removed seeds that the woylies could not reach only during the summer.

So perhaps mammals were once even more important than ants in moving seeds around arid Australia. The authors conclude that "granivorous mammals may once have been the dominant consumers and removers of seeds across the vast areas of arid Australia where they are now rare or extinct and that their presence or absence may have far-reaching ramifications for seed fate." Mammals are more likely to eat the whole seed and destroy it, not settling for the elaiosome alone. So perhaps more seeds germinate now than formerly.

Shrubs growing in Australia today may be arranged on a landscape in a different way than they would be had they been dispersed by woylies and native rodents. Who knows how different the landscape might have looked?

Scotia is a beautiful place, dotted with trees garlanded with long, peeling bark, its sandy soil hosting eerily circular growths of spinifex grass. It is a dry place, a hard place to live. I look at the pictures of it I took those years ago and I wonder how much of what I am seeing is the botanical expression of the population crash of so many Australian mammals. Like so many other landscapes, it has changed because of human influence, and probably more than once. Some believe that whole fire-adapted ecosystems of arid Australia are artifacts of Aboriginal people's burning practices.

People sometimes use the phrase "shifting baselines" to suggest that what was thought to be the original condition was actually a human-created state of affairs—but not to challenge the notion that there was an original condition. In Australia, where people go back 50,000 years, it makes little sense to talk about any "original" condition at all. Indeed, ecosystems around the word are and always have been dynamic, changing over the millennia with or without human influence.

Nevertheless, knowing the history of those changes is enormously helpful in planning restoration or conservation actions. The more we know about how these rare creatures interacted with their ecosystems, the more likely we are to be able to reestablish them across the country. Perhaps someday we will be the old codgers who remember a poorer and less diverse natural world than our children. Perhaps baselines will have shifted for the better.


This post appears courtesy of The Last Word on Nothing.

What Scientists Learned From Putting 3-D Glasses on Praying Mantises

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 09:50 AM PST

Praying mantises spend most of their lives being still. But to put 3-D glasses on these insects, Vivek Nityananda had to get them to stay really still.

He would put their cages in a freezer for five minutes, to quite literally chill them out, before sticking their legs down with tiny blobs of Plasticine. He then put a little drop of beeswax between their eyes, and pushed two tear-shaped colored filters into the wax. These bespoke glasses allowed Nityananda and his colleagues to show a different image to each of the mantis's bulbous eyes. And by doing that, he showed that these animals have a unique kind of stereovision. "It's a completely different mechanism than what we've seen in any other animal," Nityananda say.

We humans see the world with two forward-facing eyes that sit a couple of inches apart, and each gets a slightly different view of the world. By comparing these images, our brains can triangulate how far away objects are. This ability is called stereopsis, or stereovision. It's one of several cues that we use to gauge depth and distance.

One might assume that any animal with two forward-facing eyes would automatically have stereopsis, but that's not true. It's a sophisticated skill that requires a lot of processing power and a complex network of neurons—one that not every animal can afford to build. Indeed, after stereopsis was first confirmed in humans in 1838, it took 132 years for scientists to show that other species had the same ability. Macaque monkeys were the first confirmed member of the stereopsis club, but they were soon joined by cats, horses, sheep, owls, falcons, toads—and praying mantises. In the 1980s, Samuel Rossel placed prisms in front of these insects to show that they do triangulate the images from both eyes to catch their prey.

When Jenny Read, from Newcastle University, first read about this, she was amazed. How could an insect pull off such a complicated trick with a brain that contains just 1 million neurons? (For comparison, our brains have 100,000 times that number.) To find out, she and Nityananda set up their mantis 3-D cinemas.

Vivek Nityananda and a mantis (Newcastle University)

They presented the insects with screens full of black and white dots, with a slightly different pattern projected to each eye. Against these backgrounds, a small circle of dots—a target—would slowly spiral inward from the outside. "It's meant to be like a little beetle moving against a background," says Read.

By tweaking the dots, the team could change how far away this target would appear to the watching mantises. And they found that the insects would start to attack the target when it seemed to get within striking distance. Clearly, the insects have stereopsis.

But their stereopsis is not our stereopsis. We use brightness as a cue to align and compare the images that are perceived by our two eyes. Scientists can confirm this by presenting one eye with an image that's a negative of the other—that has black dots where the other has white ones, and vice versa. "For us, that's incredibly disruptive. We really can't match up the images anymore, so our stereopsis falls apart," says Read. "But the mantises are completely unfazed." Brightness clearly doesn't matter to them.

What matters, instead, is motion. Nityananda showed this by repeating his earlier experiment with a slight tweak. This time the "target" wasn't a moving circle of dots. It was more of an invisible spotlight. Wherever it shone on a group of dots, they would start to move. When it moved away, the dots would stay still. Mantises can track these movements, and they use that to triangulate distance. "They aren't trying to match up the brightness pattern of left and right," says Read. "They're trying to match up places where things are moving."

To the team's surprise, the direction of motion doesn't matter. Nityananda discovered this by tweaking his experiment so that each mantis eye sees dots moving in a different direction. For example, to the left eye, the dots within the spotlight might be moving upward, but to the right eye, those same dots would be moving downward. Both eyes saw the spotlight tracking the same path, but the local motion within the spotlight didn't match. And that didn't faze the mantises.

"We thought that would be very disruptive, but they were still completely able to work out where the object is," says Read. "We were really surprised by that. It's not how I would build a stereovision system." She suspects this is why the insects can use stereopsis despite their small brains. If they were sensitive to direction, they'd need specialized neurons for detecting upward, downward, leftward, and rightward motion. "Maybe in a tiny insect brain, it's better to look for any kind of change, I don't care what," Read says.

This isn't to say that mantis stereopsis is a pared-down version of ours. In terms of gauging the distance to moving targets, it's arguably better, and it still works in certain conditions where our stereopsis falls apart. "Stereopsis was once thought to be a human ability that even other mammals couldn't do," says Read. "Having an insect outperform our undergraduates on it was quite fun."

This finding shows why it's important to study animals beyond the usual suspects, says Karin Nordstrom from Flinders University. Scientists who study how animals track motion have typically worked on fruit flies—a stalwart of laboratory science—and it's unlikely that those would have ever revealed this unique form of stereopsis.

"This also opens up the question as to how other predatory insects determine distance to their prey," Nordstrom adds. Last year, Paloma Gonzalez-Bellido, from the University of Cambridge, and colleagues showed that robber flies—large aggressive creatures that hunt other insects—probably use stereopsis too. And Nordstrom suspects that dragonflies must surely have some kind of stereopsis, "as they are astonishingly successful predators."

"But that's hard to demonstrate without putting 3-D glasses on them," says Nityananda. "The lovely thing about mantises is that they're stationary. They can just sit in front of a computer screen."

These Young Socialists Have a Plan to Rescue Germany

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 09:03 AM PST

When 28-year-old Kevin Kühnert took the stage last month at the Social Democratic Party's (SPD) federal congress in Bonn, Germany, he seemed ready to spearhead a left-wing insurrection. Kühnert is the leader of Jusos (an abbreviation for Jungsozialisten, or young socialists), the youth wing of the left-leaning SPD, Germany's oldest and second-most-powerful political party. At the gathering in Bonn, he showed little deference to leader Martin Schulz and his call to begin talks on forming yet another "Grand Coalition" government with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union and its sister-party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union. Jusos and its supporters have called this plan a suicide pact, arguing that the SPD will forfeit all credibility with its rapidly shrinking base if it chooses to govern with Merkel's conservatives for the third time in 12 years. Kühnert's message resonated widely, with only 56 percent of SPD delegates at the congress voting to enter negotiations to build a new government with Merkel.

Early on Wednesday, Merkel's conservatives and the SPD announced that they had finally concluded those negotiations, after more than a week of intensive talks. Following SPD protocol, the final deal must be approved by popular vote sometime in early March by the SPD's 463,723 members. Loyalties in the party are evenly split between the party leaders and Kühnert, and the infighting, which has intensified since last fall, will continue even after the vote. But even though Jusos faces long odds, it is determined to break Merkel's hold on the SPD and restore the socialist values that, in its view, once helped the party shape German society.

The origins of Jusos date back to the early 1900s, when its predecessors existed chiefly as a loose collection of makeshift night schools and political clubs for young working people. Steeped in the Marxist tradition, these Arbeiterjugendvereine, or young workers' associations, taught their members about the concept of a living wage and workers' rights. 1914 saw the founding of a distinct youth section within the Munich branch of the SPD, whose founder, Felix Fechenbach, coined the term Jungsozialisten. More SPD youth groups began appearing in the 1920s, around the time that the party entered government for the first time. There, it championed reforms that protected workers' unions and helped establish benefits for the sick, elderly, and unemployed.  

In 1931, the SPD dissolved Jusos for its increasingly radical leftist views, as the group began to openly protest against the party's support for the policies of Germany's Weimer-era minority conservative government. Hitler's ban on the SPD in 1933 did little to brighten the prospects for the group's future. After World War II, however, the reconstituted SPD revived Jusos in West Germany, with a significant chunk of its membership comprising of former soldiers.

In the late 1960s, Jusos veered left of the party line once again. It offered a platform for young leftists and students who rejected American-style consumer capitalism, and railed against the failure of their parents' generation to atone for Germany's fascist past. By the mid-1970s, Jusos had some 300,000 members—roughly a third of the SPD's total membership—and successfully lobbied for elements of the "dare for more democracy" policies of Willy Brandt, who in 1969 became Germany's first postwar SPD chancellor. This platform mandated that students and workers be granted seats on university boards of directors; analogous measures for workers' unions and the boards of large corporations followed in the mid-1970s. Jusos also became a training ground for future party leaders like Hans Eichel, Rudolf Scharping, and former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who served as the head of the Jusos in the 1970s.

But by the early 1980s, German socialists began moving to the center as the SPD tried to extend its reach into the growing West German middle class. So followed Jusos. Its members distanced themselves from the Marxist lingo of class conflict, replacing it with less charged terms like "progressivism" and "fairness" to describe their view of social democracy. "In the SPD, politics came to be oriented according to the existing beliefs of voters, and thus more arbitrary. Rather than aiming to change society's beliefs, the SPD measured and approximated around them," Heinz Thoermer and Edgar Einemann wrote in the Rise and Fall of the Schroeder Generation.

Today, the political mood in Germany is leaning away from centrism. The SPD's electoral calamity last September came as voters abandoned it for far-left and far-right alternatives, including the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD). "Only a few percentage points separate us and the SPD in the polls, and that's for a reason: The SPD has long since lost its relationship with the working class. We will replace the SPD as the people's party," Alice Weidel, the leader of the AfD, recently wrote in a series of sarcastic tweets. Judging from recent studies of the German electorate, she was hardly exaggerating.

Last year, DiW, a Berlin-based economic research institute published a report examining how the German electorate changed between 2000 and 2016. The researchers found that the SPD had lost touch with its working-class base over the last 15 years, making gains instead with white-collar workers and pensioners.The report also found that the electorates of Merkel's conservatives and the SPD increasingly came to resemble one another over the same interval. "Although the proportion of laborers in the overall German workforce has decreased dramatically, we see a disproportionately large decline in the SPD voting base. One cannot say anymore that it is a workers' party," Alexander Kritikos, one of the authors of the report, said.

After SPD delegates voted for new coalition talks, the party negotiated a coalition agreement with Merkel's Christian Democrats. SPD leaders tried to push Merkel to the left on a number of issues, including migration and public healthcare—to some, it seemed the clear handiwork of Jusos. Not to Kühnert, however, who has accused the SPD of playing centrist handmaiden to Merkel, lashing out at his party's "bizarre" agreements with the conservatives on healthcare. He has argued that the negotiations should be called off altogether. In particular, he spoke out against an agreement between the SPD and Merkel's Christian Democrats to cap the number of reunifications between migrants and their families at 12,000 persons per year, an important priority for the right-wing elements of Merkel's party.  

In the lead up to the SPD's upcoming vote on the coalition decision, Kühnert is formulating his final arguments to try to persuade the aging SPD party base to swerve left. Dressed in quarter-zips and wrinkled button-downs, he is now a frequent guest on primetime talk shows, haranguing against what he sees as his party's unnecessary suicide. But his opponents have plans of their own: Schulz intends to tour Germany to campaign in favor of the grand coalition. (He will step down after the vote.) The party also wants to organize conferences at SPD headquarters in Berlin and allow for open debate between members.

That Jusos champions an old-school leftism when much of German political culture opposes such ideas has given it something of an underdog appeal to SPD members of all ages and backgrounds. "The fact that 44 percent of the delegates voted against coalition negotiations goes to show: There weren't just a few renegade Jusos at work here. It shows a mood and a belief that is deeply anchored within our party," Kühnert said. Schulz's departure, announced just yesterday, may also send a message about the SPD's future: He will be replaced by Andrea Nahles, who led Jusos in the 1990s.

But the mood is still divided. Even a small wing of the Jusos membership has begun to argue against Kühnert, saying that the SPD has a responsibility to work with Merkel to build a stable majority government. If Jusos fails, as most expect it will, then the era of Merkel's managerial centrism will live on for another four years. But with the SPD polling at a historic low of 17 percent in early February, it's perhaps time for the rest of the party to listen.

The Atlantic to Host Event on #MeToo: Observations, Criticisms, and What’s Next for the Movement

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 08:38 AM PST

Washington, D.C. (February 8, 2018)—The #MeToo movement has forced a reckoning. From clear cut cases of assault, harassment, and misogyny to poor communication, bad dates, and uncomfortable situations, American society is wrestling with what gender and power mean in the workplace, in personal relationships, and in the media. On Tuesday, February 13, The Atlantic will bring together the writers whose observations and criticisms have shaped and sharpened this evolving debate—for a special event on where the movement stands and where it could go. #MeToo: An Atlantic Exchange will take place from 5-6 PM ET, with a preceding reception beginning at 4:30 PM, at the Watergate (600 New Hampshire Ave., NW, 8th Floor). RSVP required.

Editor of TheAtlantic.com Adrienne LaFrance will lead a discussion with three Atlantic journalists whose writing has helped to clarify the conversation on equality, sex, and gender: contributing editor Caitlin Flanagan, staff writer Megan Garber, and senior associate editor Gillian White. The event will be introduced by The Atlantic's editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg.

The Atlantic continues to provide some of the most powerful and insightful coverage of #MeToo: last month, two of the publisher's most-read pieces were Flanagan on "The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari" and Garber on "Aziz Ansari on the Paradox of 'No.'"

This event is open to media and will be streamed live on the event website on Tuesday. RSVP directly to this email or be in touch with The Atlantic's Sydney Simon (ssimon@theatlantic.com, 202-266-7338) for more information.

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